Our Burning Planet


Pope Francis aims at climate deniers, weak politicians and ‘irresponsible’ Americans

Pope Francis aims at climate deniers, weak politicians and ‘irresponsible’ Americans
Pope Francis on 23 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andreas Solaro / Pool)

In a new document Pope Francis takes aim at climate change deniers. He reprimands Western nations – explicitly mentioning the US – saying that ‘emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries’. He also has strong words for weak politicians.

‘The world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” warns Pope Francis in an 11-page document, Laudate Deum (“Praise God”), released on 4 October.

The Pope writes that shifting the “irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact” on mitigating climate change.

Francis says that despite “attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativise the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident”. He says we cannot ignore the extreme weather phenomena we have witnessed recently.

“Frequent periods of unusual heat, drought and other cries of protest on the part of the earth that are only a few palpable expressions of a silent disease that affects everyone.”

“Because the situation is now even more pressing, I have wished to share these pages with you,” Francis writes.

“It is verifiable that specific climate changes provoked by humanity are notably heightening the probability of extreme phenomena that are increasingly frequent and intense,” he says.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Pope Francis lambasts climate change deniers, corporations and politicians, warns of planet’s ‘breaking point’”

The document contains high-level technical and scientific analysis – perhaps unexpected in a papal letter. Francis says, “It is no longer possible to doubt the human – ‘anthropic’ – origin of climate change.”

Eight years ago, Pope Francis wrote an encyclical, Laudato Si’, in which he called for global efforts to face the looming climate crisis so that coming generations are not left with a planet of “debris, desolation and filth.”

“With the passage of time,” Francis writes, “I have realised that our responses have not been adequate.” He says that “it is indubitable that the impact of climate change will increasingly prejudice the lives” of many people. 

The pope warns that we will feel the effects broadly “in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations, etc.”

Climate conferences have been disappointing

While the pope speaks of the progress made by climate conferences over the last 30 years, he admits that change has been slow and disappointing.

He says, “The accords [from climate conferences] have been poorly implemented, due to lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of noncompliance. The principles which they proclaimed still await an efficient and flexible means of practical implementation.”

Francis asserts that “international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.”

Taking on climate denialists and ‘scarcely reasonable opinions’

The Argentine pope takes on climate denialists. He says he feels “obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”

Unusually forceful for a pope, he says, “In recent years, some have chosen to deride these facts. They bring up allegedly solid scientific data, like the fact that the planet has always had, and will have, periods of cooling and warming.”

Francis says denialists “forget to mention” other relevant data – “that what we are presently experiencing is an unusual acceleration of warming, at such a speed that it will take only one generation – not centuries or millennia – in order to verify it.”

Francis continues by saying, “We can no longer doubt that the reason for the unusual rapidity of these dangerous changes… have to do with unchecked human intervention on nature in the past two centuries.”

“The overwhelming majority of scientists specialising in the climate support this correlation, and only a very small percentage of them seek to deny the evidence,” he writes.

The pope laments that “the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time.”


Pope Francis delivers final remarks to pilgrims and members of the faithful at the end of his prayers in the Apparitions Chapel at the Sanctuary of Fatima in Portugal on 5 August 2023. (Photo: Horacio Villalobos / Getty Images)

The rich must take responsibility

He says the rich often blame the poor and rising populations in low-income countries. “As usual, it would seem that everything is the fault of the poor.” Francis says the planet’s low, more affluent percentage “contaminates more than the poorest 50% of the world population, and that per capita emissions of the richer countries are much greater than those of the poorer ones.”

Africa has more than half of the world’s poor, yet is responsible for a minimal proportion of global emissions.

Weak international politics

Francis critiques the “weakness of international politics”. He says global crises “are being squandered” when politicians could make beneficial changes. 

Mentioning the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and the Covid-19 crisis, the pope says that “strategies developed worldwide in the wake of [those crises] fostered greater individualism, less integration and increased freedom for the truly powerful, who always find a way to escape unscathed.”

The pope says that “the most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions.” 

Francis suggests a multilateralism that is not dependent on changing political conditions or the interests of a few. He speaks of the “challenge” to “reconfigure and recreate it” so that it can respond to “the new world situation” in which “old multilateralism” is ineffective.

The pope urges civil society to act by pointing to The Ottawa Process – where an international ban on anti-personnel mines was negotiated outside an official UN forum. He says this “shows how civil society with its organisations is capable of creating effective dynamics that the United Nations cannot.”

Looking toward COP28 in Dubai

Looking toward the upcoming 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP28, which will take place in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, Francis says: “We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes.”

The pope urges: “Once and for all, let us put an end to the irresponsible derision that would present this issue as something purely ecological, ‘green’, romantic, frequently subject to ridicule by economic interests. Let us finally admit that it is a human and social problem on any number of levels. For this reason, it calls for involvement on the part of all.”

Addressing those who will go to Dubai directly, Francis urges that they consider “the common good and the future of their children” and not just the “short-term interests of certain countries or businesses”. If they do this, they will “demonstrate the nobility of politics and not its shame,” Francis adds.

Speaking to those in power, Francis says: “To the powerful, I can only repeat this question: ‘What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power, only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?’”

Create a new culture

Pope Francis invites everyone to act and create a new culture. He suggests that households reduce pollution and waste and consume with prudence, as this will begin to highlight the “lack of interest” shown by those with power. He admits that although this will “not produce a notable effect from the quantitative standpoint, we are helping to bring about large processes of transformation rising from deep within society.” DM

Absa OBP

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