Pope Francis and climate change

Editor’s Note: The Texas Legislature’s International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee invited Ricardo Simmonds, Environmental Policy Advisor for the Office of Domestic Social Development, within the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to address the committee on the Catholic Church’s stance on the environment, from the perspective of its understanding of the Paris Agreement and Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, 'Laudato Si’.'

Ricardo Simmonds

I would like to present the Catholic Church's and the Pope’s views on the environment, climate change and mitigation. By way of introduction I would like to convey this through the eyes of one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, also known as COP 21.

In Paris 195 nations agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to keep global temperatures well below a two-degree Celsius increase in relation to pre-industrial levels. This, and other points, were proposed at COP 20 in Lima, by the European Union in collaboration with other countries.

With the targets established in Lima, Paris was the critical moment which required the political will of all leaders of nations to embrace those targets. The representative of the European Union in COP 20 was the Italian minister of the environment, Gian Luca Galleti, who said in an impassionate speech in Paris:  "Pope Francis' Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ has offered to us the highest moral contribution on the environmental question."

When I met Mr. Galleti, he stressed that, without the Pope's contribution to a “change in tone” to a higher moral order, the Paris Agreement may not have happened at all. The pope shifted the debate about climate change from economic, political, scientific, and legal issues to a broader moral and ethical dialogue, which allowed everyone to participate.

Dialogue is a key word for the Pope. As you may remember, he used the concept in connection to the environment when he addressed the members of the U.S. Congress during his trip to Washington in September 2015:  "This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home. … We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Dialogue is the method of Laudato Si' and it is effective because it addresses the main villain in the environmental crisis: not climate change, which is only a symptom, but the "technocratic paradigm.” Fundamentally what that means is our human thirst and will to power treats everything we encounter as a thing, to be used and disposed for our advantage. The offspring of the technocratic paradigm is the "throwaway culture," which uses resources, creatures and people as disposable. This is what has led the planet to the state in which we find it – in the words of the Pope, "a pile of filth," or "porqueria" in Spanish. Dialogue means treating the other - creation and people- as a gift and person respectively, even my enemies with whom I disagree. Even though many have mis-characterized the Pope’s and the Church's environmental message as fulfilling different "economic, social, political and ideological interests," and while he is aware and has asked to be interpreted in context, he continues to speak because he wants a dialogue with everyone.

I would like to suggest three ways in which the Pope and the Church address climate change which allows for inclusive dialogue. It is based on the three steps of prudence: see, judge, act.

In each occasion, it leads to an integration of apparent opposites, a both/and approach:

See: Science

The Pope engages the science of climate change clearly and directly. While the Pope emphasizes that “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” he also explicitly recognizes the impact of natural variations on the climate.

The U.S. bishops explain in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State, "Pope Francis rejected a narrow understanding of climate change that excludes natural causes and other factors" [which] "creates space for reasonable people to recognize, without controversy, that the climate is changing" - regardless of the causes. Both natural and anthropogenic causes are recognized by the Pope, with an emphasis on the human causes.

Finally, while recognizing the key role of science in informing us about climate change, it is also important to recognize its limits. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive, and will never be able to tell us what to do.

Judge: Integral ecology

It is our judgments that tell us what to do, and judgments are based on values. Pope Francis proposes "integral ecology" as the guiding principle that integrates the right values with which to make judgments about the environment.

Integral ecology is both environmental and human. There is the need to consider economic, ecological, development and conservation. “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (Laudato Si’, No. 49)

Action: Mitigation

As Pope Francis said, “I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements. Solemn commitments, however, are not enough, although they are certainly a necessary step toward solutions… we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences. We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective.”

Political will is necessary, but not sufficient. The future of mitigation is intimately connected to global energy use, where progress will necessarily require an energy revolution. This will require ingenuity, investment and enterprise, all virtues of the American people. Through investments in infrastructure and technology the U.S. government has the unique opportunity to reach energy security and assert its global leadership in growing a sustainable energy sector.

As the U.S. bishops explained to U.S. Secretary Tillerson, “From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, adaptation ranks among the most important actions we can take. The poor and vulnerable disproportionately suffer from hurricanes, floods, droughts, famines and water scarcities. Climate change is one more good reason for Christians to live up to what we should be doing in the first place: ‘For I was hungry you gave me food, I was thirsty you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25, 35).”