Francis issues urgent call to save a planet near ‘the breaking point’
By Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo
Pope Francis this week once again implored the world to protect the suffering planet, lamenting in a major new document that scant progress had been made in the eight years since he refocused the Catholic Church more fully on environmental issues in a landmark treatise that catapulted him to the forefront of climate activism.
“With the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” Francis wrote in an update to his groundbreaking 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si.’” The newly urgent appeal was made public as a major assembly of global bishops and laypeople began in the Vatican to discuss key issues for the future of the church, including its role in safeguarding the environment.
In the near decade since global fanfare, plaudits from leaders and talk of a game-changing shift for the church greeted Francis’ first call to confront climate change, things have only gotten worse. The United Nations’ first official report card last month on the global climate treaty showed that countries have made only limited progress in staving off the most dangerous effects of global warming.
Extreme weather linked to climate change set records for average global temperatures this summer. Wildfires in Canada, Greece and Hawaii proved deadly and destructive. Torrential rains flooded various parts of Europe, North Africa and the United States.
While Francis’ message — against corporate interests, Western irresponsibility and toothless international organizations — remained the same, his voice has faded. Wednesday’s document, an apostolic exhortation called “Laudate Deum,” or Praise God, amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that Francis’ initial appeal to save the planet has gone largely unheeded. His influence on the world stage, which seemed so significant at the beginning of his pontificate, has been buffeted by the prevailing winds of international politics, macroeconomic pressures and recalcitrant human behavior.
Addressed to “all people of good will on the climate crisis,” Francis’ 13-page document is a mix of status report, advocacy agenda, anti-corporate lament, spiritual meditation and appeal for a new multilateral world order with more power to protect the environment.
The effect of “Laudato Si’” resonated well beyond the Catholic world, intensified by lobbying efforts from Francis and the Vatican to persuade governments — both at a national and local level — to put in place effective climate policies.
In 2015, at the United Nations Paris Climate Change Conference, often referred to as COP21, at least 10 world leaders made specific references to the papal encyclical during their addresses, and the meeting ended with a landmark agreement to fight climate change.
In the ensuing years, the Vatican hosted conferences with dozens of mayors from around the world pledging to combat global warming and help the poor deal with its effects, hosted religious leaders, and gathered money managers and titans of the world’s biggest oil companies to call on them to adjust their business practices.
Francis has pleaded his case to Congress and to other U.N. gatherings, made papal trips to countries that are especially vulnerable to climate issues, and often spoke about the issue during audiences to the faithful who came to the Vatican.
But as Wednesday’s document made clear, Francis feels his message had not been heard.
As in “Laudato Si,’” Francis, the first pope from the global south who has a clearly jaundiced eye toward American corporate and colonial interests, describes big business and the “elites of power” in his updated document as a corrupting, and environmentally devastating, force.
“The ethical decadence of real power is disguised, thanks to marketing and false information, useful tools in the hands of those with greater resources to employ them to shape public opinion,” Francis wrote.
He noted that “emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries.” He also asserted that a “broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”
He expressed frustration that large multinational organizations had failed to make enough of a dent in the problem, and he envisioned new institutions more susceptible to pressure from grassroots activists to act on the climate crisis.
“More than saving the old multilateralism, it appears that the current challenge is to reconfigure and recreate it,” he wrote.
How Francis would do that, or what such a body would look like, is unclear, but what comes across clearly is the pope’s disdain for climate change deniers.
He scorned those who “have chosen to deride” facts and who instead “bring up allegedly solid scientific data.” He showed no patience for “dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”
Some of those climate change skeptics among the hierarchy met in the Vatican assembly, called the Synod on Synodality, on Wednesday. Despite Francis’ efforts to add his voice to matters of global importance, his power is most felt within his own church. Organizers of the assembly said they would make a “contribution to the conservation of creation by choices that will offset the residual CO2 emissions produced” during the event.
The pope’s document landed before the next round of United Nations-sponsored climate talks — known as COP28 — which will take place in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, amid a backdrop of resurgent fossil fuel investments.
“People are not responding at the level of urgency that is needed,” including the church itself, said Tomás Insua, co-founder and executive director of the Laudato Si’ Movement, which includes hundreds of organizations inspired by the 2015 encyclical to bring its teachings to life. “‘Laudate Deum,’” he said, is “yet another boost.”
In his new document, Francis clearly hopes so.
“What is being asked of us is nothing other than a certain responsibility for the legacy we will leave behind,” Francis wrote, “once we pass from this world.”