Climate change battles – could Pope Francis’ encyclical be a decisive new ally?

The course of European history was at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Exactly 200 years later, Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudate Si’. Will this change the course of history and bring victory for a sustainable future at the climate change talks in Paris in November this year?

The course of European history was changed when allied forces defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Exactly 200 years later, on 18 June 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical ‘Praise be to you – On care for our common home’. Will this change the course of history and bring victory for a sustainable future at the climate change talks in Paris in November this year?

The COP 21 climate talks in Paris could well be a battle – hopefully not bloody and violent like Waterloo – but if the forces of reason and sustainability are defeated, the casualties, suffering and deaths will be infinitely greater as climate change takes its toll and becomes unstoppable.

Paris will become a battleground between multinational and fossil fuel industries on one side and environmentalists, climate realists and people of faith who recognise the seriousness of our environmental crisis. We pray it won’t be a battle between nations, but that the political leaders of the world will follow the sane and realistic counsel of Pope Francis.

Waterloo was one of the early battles of different European countries becoming allies to confront a common enemy, Napoleon. The course of the battle was decided with the arrival in the late afternoon of the Prussian army. Could the Pope’s encyclical prove to be a decisive new ally?

We in the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) have longed for such a positive and inclusive affirmation of our total connection with the rest of life, the natural environment – creation – and our responsibility to care for it.

In the battle against the forces of greed, pollution and destruction, inequality and conflict the allies have been scientists and environmentalists, often maligned by free marketers.

Until recently, faith communities had not come to the fore to care for, protect and defend creation. We in SAFCEI were a minority voice when we were founded in 2005. There were some notable voices: The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly said, “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”.

In 1989 the World Council of Churches held its Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation conference. In 1995 the Anglican Church of Southern Africa approved a resolution and booklet ‘Save our Future’; in 2002 the Anglican Communion established the Environment Network chaired by the Archbishop of Cape Town; in 2008 the Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden issued the Uppsala Interfaith Climate Manifesto; Yale University’s ‘Religion and Ecology’ has worked tirelessly in this field.

Now there is a huge change. There is an upwelling of concern and conviction that caring for creation is indeed central to the work of faith communities. Mainline Christian denominations together with Jews and Buddhists and Baha’is and Hindus and Muslims and African Traditional Religions are uniting in their call to care for and cherish living Earth. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is again calling for divestment, this time from the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel interests are now being confronted by the moral authority of faith communities.

The Pope’s letter equips us with a passionate, caring and reasoned foundation for action. It is not dealing only with the environment and climate change, but with all aspects of life, so that we might be instruments of God’s plan for “peace, beauty and fullness”.

Some politicians – Republican presidential hopefuls – argue that the Pope should stay out of climate change debates and “leave science to the scientists”. This sounds like the criticism of the Apartheid regime that Archbishop Desmond Tutu should not be involved in “politics”. He was not. He was calling for justice, just like the prophets of old. And now the Pope is calling for justice for the environment – all of creation – and for the poor. He is speaking out against global apartheid where the rich revel in the luxuries of this world while polluting so-called “developing” countries and impoverishing their people.

The past 20 years of UNFCCC COPs have singularly disregarded the findings of the scientists of the world who have all warned with increasing urgency and alarm of the disastrous consequences of our present lifestyle.

We are causing the unravelling of the web of life, bringing about the sixth great extinction and we humans will be major sufferers. It will not just be ‘other species’. It will be all of us, for as the Pope affirms “everything is interconnected”.

It is not only scientists who have been warning us – it is all who are experiencing climate change around the world, and it is sheer common sense that we humans are responsible for causing it. We know that burning fossil fuels produces a greenhouse effect on the delicate balance of gases forming our atmosphere which protects us from the harsh rays of the sun and gives us an ambient temperature. Since the Industrial Revolution carbon dioxide has increased from 280 ppm to over 400 ppm, a level the planet has not experienced for the last 600,000 years. The natural consequence is an increase in temperatures.

Pope Francis refers to the “limits imposed by reality”. The reality is that our home is a finite planet with limited, fragile resources. In our search for endless growth we are destroying our life support systems, leaving coming generations with “debris, desolation and filth”.

Why is this happening?

The rise of globalisation coincided with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit’s call for “sustainable development”.

Globalisation has dominated. Why? Is it not because of our contemporary fixation on the worship of Mammon – riches and accumulated wealth? It panders to our greed and self-centred interests. Those in power and with the wealth claim that economic growth is the way to overcome poverty and solve the problems of our planet. International instruments such as the World Bank, IMF, WEF, support this and most governments have bought into it.

Why? The Pope is quite clear: we have “deified the market”. “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fails to take the context into account let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment” (#56).

I would use stronger, less diplomatic words. We worship the god profit – or is it the devil – so that all else falls by the wayside in our pursuit of “profit”.

The consequence of making financial riches and accumulated monetary wealth our goal and object of life is human trafficking, illicit wildlife trade threatening the extinction of species – the rhino is only one iconic example – and the depletion of natural resources such as marine, forests and water. In a nutshell, the destruction of the abundance of this planet – our home – all to get more money.

The reality is that the planet has resources for all if we made the goal the well-being of people and planet and recognised that money is just a tool to enable us to do what is needed to care for people and the planet.

The priority of the market has been most successful – for those with wealth, so that 85 individuals hold more wealth than half the world’s population. The ‘free’ market has been disastrous for the natural environment and the poor. Money has been made more important than life!

Free marketers will object to the Pope’s letter. He is denouncing self-centred individualism, stating that private property does not mean absolute ownership and his criticism of the market goes to the heart of the capitalists’ dream of individual enterprise and initiative bringing about wealth. The answer is to deny the reality of climate change.

What the Pope is doing is calling on us to recognise that the way ahead is to establish justice for all of life – the poor and all of creation – and that by working together we can overcome the manifold problems confronting us. He is making a crucial call for transcendent values and ethics, so that we recognise the limitations to our power and the need to live in harmony with all of life. He calls for farsighted leadership upholding high principles and citizen governance whereby all people – especially the poor and indigenous people – are involved in decisions affecting their lives.

He quotes the Earth Charter and ends on a note of hope and joy, concluding with two prayers, the first a general one ‘A prayer for our Earth’ and the second ‘A Christian prayer in union with creation’.

If the Earth Charter and the Pope’s encyclical are taken as guidelines for our future political, economic and environmental decision-making, there is most certainly hope for the future. If we disregard the wisdom and insight in both these documents and continue on a path of self-centred greed, we shall be bringing about a planet vastly reduced in its beauty and abundance.

It is our prayer that just as the arrival of the Prussian army in the Battle of Waterloo turned the tide, so the Pope’s encyclical will be a new ally to turn the tide so that the forces of “justice, love and goodness” will prevail at the Battle of Paris.

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