The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.

In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.

~ Pope Francis, in 'Laudato Si'

The Pope’s Ecological Call to Action

By John Sealey

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Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity,” reported the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on April 28. This declaration previewed “Laudato Si” or “Praised Be to You,” Pope Francis’s much-awaited encyclical that is the first papal encyclical so fundamentally dedicated to environmental issues. The document covers considerable ground. Here are takeaways and some of the key themes Pope Francis addresses:

CLIMATE CHANGE HARMS THE POOREST
Catholic social teaching places the climate crisis squarely in line with our preferential concern for the poor. The world’s richest nations have been the biggest CO2 emitters, while the world’s 3 billion poorest people suffer the worst consequences of climate change. Global inequality and environmental destruction are two sides of the same coin. As Pope Francis says in the encyclical:

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.” [48]

Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities faced by vulnerable groups. The Global Humanitarian Forum finds developing countries account for 99 percent of all deaths and 90 percent of the total economic losses due to climate change, while the world’s 50 least developed countries contribute less than one percent of global carbon emissions. At our current rate, there will be 150–200 million climate refugees by 2050.

CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL
Jesuits strive for intellectual rigor. The gift of understanding takes into account the best in applied and social sciences. For this reason, we agree with the assessment by the 800 scientists who comprise the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): human activities adversely affect the planet, which has an immediate, negative impact on the poor. The release of CO2 through burning fossil fuels is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas increases that accelerate climate change. Unfortunately, vested interests have funded disinformation campaigns intended to confuse public opinion and maintain business as usual. Such practices that obscure the truth for financial gain should be opposed rather than tolerated.

THE TIME FOR ACTION IS NOW
Several years ago, a synthesis statement from recent winners of the Blue Planet Prize for outstanding scientific efforts to solve environmental problems warned, “In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency (e.g., climate change) society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”

In the encyclical, Pope Francis adds, “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCES ARE NEEDED
The timing of this encyclical’s release is notable ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. The Paris meeting could be the last opportunity to negotiate agreements to keep warming below the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) benchmark agreed to at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. According to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, sustainable development should be incentivized by all nations to rapidly transition toward greener technologies and low carbon energy. Predictably, opponents respond with a false dichotomy linking carbon consumption with economic productivity. The International Energy Agency, however, reported that worldwide economic growth occurred in 2014 despite carbon consumption leveling out.

WE NEED ECOLOGICAL CONVERSION
In the end, this issue is more about faith than politics, economics, or even science. Fifteen years ago, Pope Saint John Paul II introduced the term “ecological conversion,” envisioning a fundamental change in orientation toward creation. This clarion call for ecological conversion was later echoed by Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, in his 2011 letter “On Ecology.” Critics who already fault Pope Francis for wading into the realm of climate science miss the point. Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, agrees that while the Church does not speak as an expert on science, technology, or economics, she is an expert in humanity.

“For the person of faith, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of climate change,” says Cardinal Turkson. “A Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work.”


John Sealey is the provincial assistant for social and international ministries for the  Midwest Jesuits.

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