Should the Pope Stay Out of the Climate Change Debate?

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by Elizabeth Fernandez
A few months ago, Pope Francis released his encyclical on climate change. In it, he details the science behind climate change and how we need to take responsibility of what is happening to our Earth. And it didn’t take long for the uproar to start. Some told the Pope to stay out of politics. Others told the Pope to stay out of science. There were even claims that his encyclical was so far to the left it would tear the church apart.

The criticism that the encyclical has encountered leads me to believe that few people have even read it. In any case, I encourage you to read the encyclical, which can be found here. It’s long and it deals with some pretty heavy topics (and as such, is sometimes distressing) but Pope Francis has some incredible insights on climate change and our world.

And somehow, I feel the Pope is one of the few people who actually gets it.

Pope Francis doesn’t approach climate change as a political issue (and indeed it shouldn’t be). He addresses it as a human and ethical issue – exactly what you would expect from a spiritual leader. He hits the “pause” button on our entire society and gives us an unclouded look at the world that we have created and the problems that this has led to. The Pope does not merely address renewable fuels or the protection of endangered animals – he addresses us, as entire people, and how we interact with this world on a fundamental level.

The world and all that is in it is precious

The encyclical begins:

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”

So many times, people have incorrectly interpreted scriptures to mean that dominion over the world means that we can utilize it for our own selfish benefits, whether as individuals or as entire countries. But Pope Francis encourages us to think of the world in different terms – more like a sister or a mother, which we would be much less likely to exploit and plunder. The Pope emphasizes many times that each part of creation – each creature, each tree, and each person – has a beautiful and unique roll in the world. He quotes Emeritus Pope Benedict,

“The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”

We are all interconnected

Pope Francis says several times in the encyclical that we are all connected. Again and again he says everything is connected.

“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. “

Pope Francis urges us to realize the true value in what is around us. Whether it is the environment, other people, or animals, everything is precious and connected. We must put value where value is needed, not in material gain or our own selfish desires.

I think Pope Francis here is speaking to the real root of the problem. In our consumerist, profit-driven society, we are taught time and time again to look out for # 1. We put our own comfort first by turning up the heat before putting on an extra sweater, by leaving our reusable bags at home because it’s much easier to grab plastic bags at the store, or by leaving lights on at home for convenience. And on a larger scale, everything from companies to entire countries are often driven by profit and their own gain. We live as if we are in a bubble, separated from the rest of the world. But the truth is – we cannot separate ourselves from this world. We are a part of it, and each of our actions will affect it. We are dependent on it, and it is dependent on us. Our actions have long reaching consequences on everything – from the birds in the trees outside your window to the poor in a country half a world a way. We cannot continue to live as if we are isolated from this world.

The poor will be more affected by climate change

Pope Francis goes on to point out the irony – the poor, the people with the smallest carbon footprint, and those who likely have no power to change public policy – are the first to feel the effects of climate change. Many of the poor in this world depend closely on their environment for their well-being – on fishing, forestry, or farming, and they do not have the means or capital to adapt to changes in their environment. Often, their plight is ignored.

Those who can should look out for these people. Because we are all in fact connected, those who can affect policy should also consider those who do not have a voice. More prosperous countries should take the lead in enacting climate-saving measures, because developing countries may not have the means to do so. Again and again, the Pope reminds us that we are connected.

We have forgotten so much

Pope Francis points out to us that the problem of climate change has a deeper root, one hundreds of years in the making. Over time, we have forced ourselves into more and more crowded cities, far from nature. How many people have never seen the Milky Way, or whose only experience with nature comes from the park in the middle of the city? How can we love and respect something we don’t even know?

We are overwhelmed with data from the internet and false ways to connect with one another. How many times do we see a group of friends at a restaurant, looking at their own cell phones instead of actively engaging one another? How much of our time is spent in front of a computer or television screen? Our materialistic and technology-driven society has made us forget about true ways to connect – both with each other and with nature. We have created voids in our lives. We try to fill those voids with more and more material possessions, hoping to find freedom and happiness. And when that doesn’t work, we buy even more things, thus establishing a throw-away culture. How can we value anything in this kind of society?

The solution to climate change is not merely a technological one

Perhaps our happiness, now and in the future, is not connected to having more material possessions and placing our hope in technology alone. It’s not connected to having the best and newest new gadget. To find happiness, true happiness, we have to remember our place in the world – to experience it, to interact with it, and to get to know those around us. If we do these things and change our way of thinking, we will indeed be on our way to righting climate change.

We must remember that we are indeed interconnected. We must think globally. Our choices should not just come down to how we ourselves will be affected, but we should strive to see the long ranging effects of the choices we make.

New technologies will no doubt help us to confront climate change. However, Pope Francis says the long lasting solution is not merely technical, quoting the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:

“At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms.”

Pope Francis doesn’t approach climate change as a scientist. He doesn’t promote technical solutions. Rather he appeals to our humanity. It is a call to truly be human and to reassess who we are, which then changes how we see ourselves as part of the world. The solution to climate change is not merely a technological one. If we do not value the world and those in it, we cannot hope to gain the ability to truly help and care for our world.

What can we do?

The encyclical ends with hope. There is much that we can do. Pope Francis urges that even if we can afford air conditioning, we can open a window instead. Even if we can afford to drive, we can take public transportation. We can find happiness with fewer things. Be present in the moment and be there for those around you. And see God in all beings. If we do this, our hearts will be changed, and we will love and protect the world automatically. Pope Francis gives us hope:

“We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world.”

Hidden deep within this encyclical is one last gem I want to share with you. People can ask – why do we have to deal with climate change in the first place? Or, perhaps more commonly, why does evil exist? How can God let things go so wrong? Pope Francis says this:

“Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.”

Think about this for a moment. The Pope offers incredible insight here. We are not merely powerless parts of creation, cogs in the wheel of the universe. Rather, God is inviting us to create the type of world that we want alongside Him. The world is not to be dominated. Rather, the world is to be created.

Article © Elizabeth Fernandez, 2015

Cover image:

Pope Francis.  Source: [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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