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Leader: Not in good hands

19 June 2015

THE content of Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment, Laudio Si, released yesterday, was not really the point. The Vatican lays claim to no new scientific evidence, though its reach to the poorest and least stable areas of the globe gives it an unmatched authority on the effects of climate change. The purpose of the encyclical was to lay claim to the subject: the future of the planet is a theological issue.

The encyclical is being released shortly before the Pope's visit to the United States, where climate-change deniers still hold sway within the Republican Party. The Pope will address the United Nations and the US Congress on sustainable development. Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate and a Roman Catholic, has remarked that the Church would be "better off leaving science to the scientists", which makes as much sense as suggesting that politics be left to the politicians.

But perhaps Santorum is right to be hostile. Although the claims for the encyclical are that it is moral and pastoral, it is, in reality, political. Because so many vested interests are involved in the trading of raw materials and the production of consumer goods, it becomes a political act to argue, as Pope Francis does, against consumerism and for sustainability. A Peruvian bishop, Pedro Barreto Jimeno, spelt this out beforehand to the Catholic News Service: "The encyclical will address the issue of inequality in the distribution of resources and topics such as the wasting of food and the irresponsible exploitation of nature and the consequences for people's life and health." Inequality is one of those concepts that politicians are willing to embrace as long as they have the defining of it; they are more critical when it is addressed by someone else, and especially by someone who has grown up among the poor.

The success of the encyclical depends on its ability to persuade people to change their behaviour. Up to this point, environmental campaigners have run up against the same problem as the anti-smoking movement encountered: it is hard to prove causation against wealthy vested interests who can use libertarian arguments to denigrate your concerns. Why undergo expensive changes to businesses and lifestyles if the science of climate change can be denied, albeit by ignoring the overwhelming consensus among scientists? The Pope's intention is to circumvent this stalemate. In one sense, future projections of climate change are immaterial: because Western consumer culture is careless of the true cost of its lifestyle, the Pope argues, it is placing its practitioners in physical and moral danger. The personal consequences are already clearly apparent. But it is not enough to concentrate on individual behaviour: a huge shift must take place in corporate and political ambitions, to align them with the experience of God known only by those who have no material goods to put their trust in.

In Sunday's Gospel reading, St Mark brings up Christ's command of the storm. Christ uses his power over creation to bring calm and order. The power that humans exert over creation, and the chaos they generate, are in stark contrast. This, above all, should worry the world into action.

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