Pope Francis Takes on Climate Change

The Catholic leader urges his followers—and all humans—to acknowledge and fight global warming.

In an unprecendented move, Pope Francis issued a letter this morning to the Church's leadership acknowledging global warming as a human-caused phenomenon and imploring world leaders to take action to address it. It was the first encyclical—as such letters are known—of Francis's papacy, and the first papal encyclical in the history of the Catholic Church to focus on the environment .

In the 184-page encyclical, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide frames the environmental crisis as a potentially cataclysmic situation in need of an immediate global solution. Francis not only remarks that “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," but also warns of “grave consequences for all of us” if we fail to act on climate change.

Pope Francis, who studied chemistry in Buenos Aires before entering the seminary, writes that a “very solid” scientific consensus has formed about the causes of climate change. 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 writes.

He goes on to cast the effects of climate change in almost biblical terms, referring to widespread pollution, biodiversity loss, and the potential for “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems.” This destruction, Francis notes, has caused an unheard-of rate of extinction: “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.” 

In another break with tradition, Pope Francis’s encyclical addresses not just the world’s Catholics, but every person living on this planet,” which he calls “our common home.” 

Popes have commented on environmental issues in the past, but never, experts say, in such an important document. This isn’t the first time Francis, who was elected in 2013, has spoken out on climate matters—he famously scolded delegates for their “lack of courage” during the climate talks held in Lima, Peru, last December—but this is by far his biggest statement yet. It’s also the longest coming: The document took more than a year to draft. 

In the letter, Francis offers surprisingly sharp policy opinions with regard to combating climate change, calling on world leaders to develop policies that will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases, and replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

There is, however, one proposed measure to rein in carbon emissions that Francis won't support: In language that recalls statements he made last year criticizing free-market capitalism, the pope takes a stand in his letter against carbon credits (the currency of the so-called "cap and trade" model), calling them a “quick and easy solution” that runs the risk of enabling excessive consumption by richer countries and industries. He warns that such credits may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

Francis, who lived most of his life in Argentina, refers in the letter to an “ecological debt” the Northern Hemisphere owes the Southern Hemisphere. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world," he writes.

To help set things right, the pope advocates for the establishment of a new global authority tasked with addressing problems that will continue to crop up as climate change worsens. Quoting a previous encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, Francis writes that such an authority could help "to manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis, to prevent deterioration of the present and subsequent imbalances; to achieve integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to ensure environmental protection and pursuant to the regulations for migratory flows.” 

Pope Francis’s encyclical comes at a time when just 53 percent of Catholics give the pope a favorable rating for his work addressing environmental issues. According to a Pew Center research poll conducted last month, a solid majority of Catholics in the United States believe that the Earth is warming, although they remain largely divided on the cause and the severity of climate change. 

Those divisions fall mostly along party lines, with 60 percent of Catholic Democrats agreeing that global warming is a man-made phenomenon that poses a very serious problem, compared with just a quarter of Catholic Republicans. It's not entirely surprising, then, that some Republican leaders, including several presidential candidates, have already dismissed Pope Francis’s views. At a campaign event held on Tuesday, after an early draft of the letter leaked, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush remarked, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” His comments echoed those made by Rick Santorum, one of Bush’s rivals for the Republican nomination and a devout Catholic, earlier this month, when he said the church was better off “leaving science to the scientists.”

On the other hand, Chandra Taylor Smith, an ordained Christian minister who also serves as Audubon VP of Community Conservation and Education, says that hearing this message from a religious leader could make people more inclined to take action. “This encyclical will lift the discussion of the devastation of global warming out of the domain of science, technology and economics alone,” says Smith, who has a Ph.D in ecological theology, “and make the case that action on climate is also a moral, ethical as well as a spiritual issue.”

Additional resources:

  • Learn how to transform your religious space into a bird-friendly sanctuary.
  • See how climate change threatens over half of North American birds.