If the world’s rich nations do not pay for their “social debt,” to poor people around the world the entire humanity will be placed at risk, Pope Francis said today. The leader of 1.2 billion people belonging to the Catholic Church is warning the world about “synthetic agrotoxins” harming birds and insects to bioaccumulation from industrial waste displaying not just a deep understanding of science but also rare impatience with the indifference shown by the world’s rich and powerful to the plight of the less-privileged.
“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” Pope Francis wrote in his Encyclical released today. “In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development,” the Encyclical says.
An Encyclical is the most authoritative document a Pope can write. In many ways, it is a statement of fundamental principles. Neither dogmagtic nor didactical this one offers an array of options with cause and effect in detail. Called Laudato Si (Be Praised) from the famous “Canticle of the Sun” written by St. Francis of Assisi in medieval Italian around the year 1224, the hymn praises God and his creations and speaks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon and our sister Mother Earth who sustains and governs us and who produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs. Laudato Si is the first papal Encyclical devoted to the environment. (Read more about what an encyclical is)
The much-anticipated missive to governments and others is not only a moral call as it was expected to be, but equally one that seeks to stir people to move from scientific data to policy and financial decisions and commitments. The Encyclical calls for a social revolution that questions existing market mechanisms and growing disparities between poor and rich people with no solutions on the table capable of closing the gap.
To develop the tome, the Pope has sought help from three people – two clerics and a scientist. The clerics are Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanian head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Metropolitan John Zizioulas of the Orthodox Church. Hans Joachim Schellenhuber, a mathematician and theoretical physicist as well as a climate expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research is the scientist. He is widely seen as the “father” of the two degree target where he maintains that if the temperature of the planet increases by more than 2C, the tipping point of a disastrous situation will be attained.
To prevent disaster, “dialogue is essential” said Cardinal Peter Turkson who is the Pope’s person on social justice issues. Releasing the Encyclical in Vatican City today (the Pope was not present), he said it was imperative “for practical proposals not to be developed in an ideological, superficial and or reductionist way.” The Encyclical urges taking public transit, carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, recycling and interestingly, boycotting certain products, reminiscent of civil society action in the middle of the last century.
Laudato Si has been welcomed by the United Nations (UN) which is seeking an ambitious deal on climate change at the end of this year, the president of the World Bank as well as other stake-holders. But it has its critics and first off the bloc to contradict the Pope is Jeb Bush who recently announced that he is in the run to become president of the United States of America (USA). He is expected to lead the backlash against the Encyclical in tandem with the coal industry and climate change deniers. “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishop or my cardinal or my pope,” he said. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
Historically, the church and science have clashed on many critical issues but the Encyclical devotes an entire part to latest scientific findings, pointing to what the Pope has called an ecological crisis that will leave no one indifferent. The Encyclical underlines the basic inequality faced by poor people which places them at a permanent disadvantage economically – a trap from which they will not be able to escape unless the basics of current market mechanisms change with robust assistance from developed. “Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. The failure to respond, he says, points to the loss of a “sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded”. He calls access to safe water a “basic and universal human right” and says depriving the poor of access to water is akin to denying the right to a life.
“The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things,” he writes. He also makes clear that unlike past Encyclicals, Laudato Si speaks to all regardless of their religion. “Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet. In this Encyclical, I especially propose to enter into discussion with everyone regarding our common home.”
The debate has been launched and politicians who deny the effects of climate change have just found themselves a formidable opponent.