The Vatican and Climate Change

Elizabeth Gudgel, JHU:

In his historic visit to the United States last month, Pope Francis remarked the following to the United Nations General Assembly: “The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. The baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man.”

In the Vatican City this week, Roman Catholic leaders echoed this strict sentiment and signed a proposal outlining actions against climate change they hope will become legally binding in the Paris United Nations conference next month. The appeal identifies ten points of improvement, ranging from sustainable food programs to global temperature limits. The proposition is intended for the COP 21 conference, an event typically led by executive directors, prime ministers, and premier climate change scientists.

Where the Vatican’s appeal differs is its intense focus on the ties between poverty and the effects of climate change. In a cruel paradox, wealthy industrialists often cause the damage, but the effects most severely impact the most impoverished areas of the world. The economic costs associated with floods, heat waves, fires, and other natural disasters are managed relatively easily by wealthy nations, but developing countries are hit much harder; the cost is placed on individual families whose livelihood is often ruined in these events. With the current disastrous state of Syria and the millions of refugees seeking life elsewhere, climatologists have even begun to release studies theorizing the political upheaval was in large part caused by a severe drought. The most frequently cited study was one conducted by University of California Santa Barbara Professor Colin Kelley. It outlines the record-setting drought and how it negatively impacted agriculture and livestock practices. This destruction of farming life increased existing tensions and competition for resources, partially contributing to the uprising that began in 2011. According to Kelley, the drought is unprecedented and directly connected to increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Syrian crisis is one of many speculated to be directly connected to global temperature warming. Impoverished communities in developing nations often depend on natural resources and agriculture to survive – two things most severely threatened by climate change. Long before the Vatican made this a priority, the United Nations acknowledged the particular susceptibility the poor have global warming. As it is depressingly noted in 2014 United Nations Development Report, developing nations suffer almost 100% of the deaths related to climate change, but only make up 3% of the world’s carbon footprint.

These arguments are not unequivocally accepted as fact. Almost exclusively in the United States, some conservative politicians have recently defended human practices as inconsequential to climate change, if they have chosen to acknowledge it at all. In a move subsequently mocked by every major news outlet, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) brought a snowball to the Senate floor earlier this year as evidence of the hoax of climate change, remarking, “It’s very, very cold out. Unseasonably so.” Far less dramatically, dozens of conservative congressional members from both the Democratic and Republican parties have rejected legislation combatting climate change, typically citing inconclusive science or normal temperature fluctuations as evidence against global warming. This is often used as a tactic to prolong the adoption of more sustainable, and often more expensive, energy sources. Environmental protection legislature is not cheap, and often easy to sideline when the most direct effects are far from home. Conservatism often calls for lower taxes and restrictions on businesses, which environmental legislation relies upon to cut emissions and environmental damage.

The Roman Catholic Church typically stands as the embodiment of social conservatism. On the issues of contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and ordaining women into the church, Pope Francis has maintained the traditional view. Yet climate change has continuously been a departure from this norm; as far back as 1990 papal leaders have been invited as speakers and contributors to United Nations conferences on the subject. Environmental destruction is framed as a moral issue in this context – acknowledging modern science, the Catholic Church has for decades seen this is as a product of the wealthy harming the poor. In 2009, the Catholic Climate Covenant was founded as a US-based organization created “to help Catholic people and institutions respond to the moral call for action on climate change. We open policy conversation, help people and organizations reduce their carbon footprint, and share authentic Catholic teaching on climate change,” according to their website. This is one of many organizations founded by the Catholic Church to proliferate information and encourage less waste and unnecessary consumption. However, Francis’s perspective is a departure from the norm of appealing to individuals, as he makes the rare effort to directly insert the Church into government policy. Recognizing that the wealthiest countries have an obligation to the poorest may stem from his status as a third-world pope. He was the first non-European pope to be elected in more than one thousand years, and the very first from South America. Francis’s visit to the United States last month was partially conducted in order to draw attention to the moral issues of capitalism and development in these wealthier nations. Appeals to ethics and principles have historically been ineffective in environmental and humanitarian efforts, with economic arguments usually winning over votes. The Pope’s aura of goodwill and morality may be the needed antithesis to these arguments, but more suited to European nations that have already accepted climate change as fact and initiated the use of green technology. The proposed plan would require a large economic commitment from the United States for decades to come, something that may be extremely difficult to pass, especially given the nearly five-year process of approving a budget plan that just made it through the House this week.

Despite its unlikelihood of adoption in America, the 10-point plan is an impressive agreement between the Vatican and contemporary climatology studies. The appeal is not a list of small recommendations – the points are intended to be legally binding, and call for complete de-carbonization by 2050. The Church’s plan was directly addressed to political leaders world wide, and the nine cardinals, patriarchs, and bishops present insisted that developing nations must be included in the conversation of the plan’s adoption. The wide support and prestige given to the Pope, combined with an already existing movement towards combating climate change in Europe may lead to its initiation there. The appeal outlines strict goals, but the details are intentionally vague so individual nations can create specific policy, which Catholic leaders hope will be finalized in the Paris COP21 conference this November.

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