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World may be near breaking point, says Pope in climate exhortation

05 October 2023


Pope Francis attends the Opening of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality at the Paul VI Hall, in the Vatican, on Wednesday

Pope Francis attends the Opening of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality at the Paul VI Hall, in the Vatican, on Wednesday

THE Pope has warned of “immensely grave consequences” if the people of the world fail to combat global warming, and has criticised those who continue to deny or question the reality of climate change.

“No one can ignore that in recent years we have witnessed extreme weather phenomena, frequent periods of unusual heat and drought, and other cries of protest on the part of the earth that are only a few palpable expressions of a silent disease affecting everyone,” he writes in a 7600-word Apostolic Exhortation, Laudate Deum.

It was published on Wednesday as the Church’s long-planned international “synod on synodality” opened in Rome.

“Some have chosen to deride these facts,” the Pope writes. “They bring up allegedly solid scientific data, like the fact that the planet has always had, and will have, periods of cooling and warming. . . Yet the rise in the sea level and the melting of glaciers can be easily perceived by an individual in his or her lifetime, and probably in a few years many populations will have to move their homes.”

Eight years have passed, he notes, since his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ set out his concerns over the “care of our common home” (News, 19 June 2015).

Bishops in the United States, Latin America, and Africa had since shown how climate change has affected the most vulnerable and is “intimately related to the dignity of human life”, although it has been of little interest to the “great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time”, he writes.

“With the passage of time, I have realised that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.

“If up to now we could have heat waves several times a year, what will happen if the global temperature increases by 1.5°C, which we are approaching? Those heat waves will be much more frequent and with greater intensity. If it should rise above 2 degrees, the icecaps of Greenland and a large part of Antarctica will melt completely, with immensely grave consequences for everyone.”

The document is expected to encourage debate among the 450 bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people attending the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

The month-long event was inaugurated with a mass on Wednesday in St Peter’s Basilica, during which the Pope cautioned in his homily against “human strategies, political calculations, or ideological battles”, and urged participants not to “let the world dictate its agenda” or expect “a parliamentary meeting or a plan of reformation”.

In his exhortation, the Pope says that global warming is visible in “droughts and floods, the dried-up lakes, communities swept away by seaquakes and flooding”, and rejects claims by people, including members of his own Church, who seek to “ridicule” current warnings.

It is, he writes, “no longer possible to doubt” the human causes of climate change, and a “broad change” is needed in “the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model”, at a time when emissions in the United States are twice those per capita in China, and seven times the average in poorest countries.

“‘Praise God’ is the title of this letter — for when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies.

“In an attempt to simplify reality, there are those who would place responsibility on the poor, since they have many children, and even attempt to resolve the problem by mutilating women in less developed countries. As usual, it would seem that everything is the fault of the poor.”

Roman Catholic groups have been increasingly active against global warming since Laudato Si’, which also focused on the integral relationship between God, humans, and the earth.

Among other initiatives, a new Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, headed by Cardinal Michael Czerny,and the Italian economist Sister Alessandra Smerilli, has made resources and planning guides available to RCs worldwide under a Laudato Si’ Action Platform, and co-operated with new organisations, such as the Laudato Si’ Research Institute at the University of Oxford.

The Pope says that his encyclical has challenged the idea of “infinite or unlimited growth” which is “so attractive to economists, financiers, and technology experts”, although poor people are still being “astounded and excited by the promises of any number of false prophets” in “a world that is not being built for them”.

The “techocratic paradigm” underlying environmental decay is still “monstrously feeding upon itself”, thanks to artificial intelligence and other technological innovations, the Pope says, while many still believe in “a human being with no limits, whose abilities and possibilities can be infinitely expanded”.

“We need to rethink among other things the question of human power, its meaning and its limits. For our power has frenetically increased in a few decades. We have made impressive and awesome technological advances, and we have not realised that at the same time we have turned into highly dangerous beings,” his exhortation continues.

“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. . . The mentality of maximum gain at minimal cost, disguised in terms of reasonableness, progress and illusory promises, makes impossible any sincere concern for our common home and any real preoccupation about assisting the poor and the needy discarded by our society.”

The exhortation appeares in the run-up to the latest UN climate-change conference, COP28, opening in Dubai on 30 November, which will provide the first “global stocktake” of progress since the 2016 Paris Agreement by 197 signatories of the 1992 UN Framework Convention of Climate Change.

The Pope says that gas and oil companies are “planning new projects” in the United Arab Emirates, which are a “great exporter of fossil fuels” , but had also invested in renewable energy.

He says that he hopes that COP28 can still bring “a change of direction” and reveal a human capacity to “transcend petty interests”, becoming “a historic event that honours and ennobles us as human beings”.

“To suppose that all problems in the future will be able to be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism, like pushing a snowball down a hill,” the exhortation says.

“The most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international level. . . But we also need to realise that there are no lasting changes without cultural changes, without a maturing of lifestyles and convictions within societies, and there are no cultural changes without personal changes.”

He says that he regrets that the 2007-08 financial crisis and later Covid-19 crisis have been “squandered”, when they could have “brought about beneficial changes”.

He repeats a call from his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (News, 9 October 2020), for “more effective world organisations”, equipped with authority and power “to provide for the global common good”, and to foster “a multilateralism that is not dependent on changing political conditions or the interests of a certain few”.

“The old diplomacy, also in crisis, continues to show its importance and necessity — it should be able to reconfigure itself and must be part of the solution, because the experience of centuries cannot be cast aside,” the exhortation says.

“Our world has become so multipolar and at the same time so complex that a different framework for effective cooperation is required. It is not enough to think only of balances of power but also of the need to provide a response to new problems and to react with global mechanisms to the environmental, public health, cultural and social challenges, especially in order to consolidate respect for the most elementary human rights.”

Among reactions, Ireland’s RC bishops, meeting this week in Maynooth, welcomed Laudate Deum as an “important contribution”, inviting people “to be reconciled with our common home”, while Britain’s Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD) said that it reflected the Pope’s “passionate concern for outcasts”, and the need for “political change on a national and international level” and for Christians to get involved by “pressurising the sources of power and demanding change”.

The conservative RC journal First Things, in the United States, said that the exhortation represents “a leaner, far more effective effort” to engage Catholic opinion than Laudato Si’, but that it “hardly mentions Christ” and appeared to be “an essentially secular document with a religious addendum”.

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