Release of encyclical reveals pope’s deep dive into climate science

In the 192-page paper released Thursday, Francis lays out the argument for a new partnership between science and religion to combat human-driven climate change — a position bringing him immediately into conflict with skeptics, whom he chides for their “denial.


The social-minded pope takes on corporate greed, fossil fuels and the West’s disposable culture, calling out those who use eco-friendly labels for branding and selling while ignoring the plight of the world’s poor. And yet, he said, everyone should do their part. He urged taking public transit, carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, recycling — and boycotting certain products. Most of all, he called for an “ecological conversion” for the faithful.

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” he writes.

A highly accurate draft, which leaked Monday in the Italian press, had already begun dividing politicians and theologians. As the Vatican rolled out the official version at a packed press conference to big-screen scenes of Francis planting a tree, the debate over the proper role of a pope — one that was already popping up on the presidential campaign trail in the United States — immediately intensified. But environmental activists widely cheered the rise of an unlikely ally in the fight against climate change, one whose voice could resonate not only in major global conferences but also in prayer groups and church pews.

What effect the document — known as an encyclical — will have isn’t clear. Polls show that Francis, leader of the world’s largest faith community, is one of the most trusted, popular and retweeted people on the planet. Yet the encyclical comes at a time when institutional religion’s influence is waning in many parts of the world. The last encyclical that most Catholics and non-Catholics could probably name was Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the ban on artificial contraception in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, green activists held out hope that the pope’s message would touch religious skeptics of climate change. In the document, a reforming pope who has set a new tone for the church on issues including homosexuality laid out a green view of faith that embraced the moral imperatives of everything from animal rights to solar panels.

And he backed up his science with Bible verse, largely rejecting the notion that man had “dominion” over the Earth.

“He is giving us a moral legitimacy to continue campaigning,” said a jubilant Giuseppe Onufrio, executive director of Greenpeace in Italy who was set to join a June 28 march in St. Peter’s Square in support of the pope’s environmental stance. “Climate change is now an issue of social justice.”

In the document, Francis linked global warming to the overarching theme of his papacy — fighting inequality and global poverty. “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” Francis wrote, blaming a toxic cocktail of overconsumption, consumerism, dependence on fossil fuels and the errant indifference of the powerful and wealthy. He described a hell on Earth should nothing be done, one filled with more methane and carbon dioxide, acidification of oceans and the crippling of the global food supply.

For a document timed ahead of several major conferences aimed at forging a broad new global treaty on climate change, Francis also sought to wield his influence to shape a fair deal for the developing world. He called for a binding international treaty that would have rich countries help poorer ones adapt, including a move to help them switch from fossil fuels to clean energies such as solar power.

Climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” the pope wrote. “Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

His declarations resonated worldwide.

President Barack Obama issued a statement Thursday echoing the encyclical’s themes of taking bold actions to reduce environmental degradation and protect the poor, and praised the pontiff for making his case with “the full moral authority of his position.”

“This clarion call should guide the world towards a strong and durable universal climate agreement,” said a statement from Christiana Figueres, head of the Bonn, Germany-based U.N. Climate Change Secretariat.

U.N.-backed talks seeking a global pact to combat climate change are scheduled to open in Paris on Nov. 30.

In France, President François Hollande said he hoped the “voice of Pope Francis is heard on every continent, not only by believers.”

The document was partly drafted with the input of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a decades-old body that includes leading academics and scientists from various faiths, including atheists and agnostics such as Stephen Hawking.

The pope’s stark warnings sparked derision and dismissal from conservative skeptics. Jeb Bush, a longtime Catholic convert, quipped Tuesday during a stop in New Hampshire that “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”

Asked about the criticism, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson quipped that politicians “are not experts either.”

“That the pope should not deal with science sounds a little bit strange,” he said. Repeating a journalist’s question, he said, “The Republicans say they won’t listen to the pope. That’s their freedom, their freedom of choice.” But, he suggested, by ruling out the pope’s words on climate change, they were effectively buying into attempts in recent years to sideline the voice of religion and aiding those who say that “religion has, or faith has, no role in public accounts.”

Even so, Pope Francis, who has a secondary-school technical degree in chemistry and once worked as a chemist, made an unprecedented papal dive into policy detail — for example, assessing carbon credits as unlikely to reduce “the overall emission of polluting gases.” In fact, the encyclical reads in many places almost like a scientific document, speaking of the “bioaccumulation” of chemicals in the bodies of organisms and concerns about methane seeping into the atmosphere from the Arctic tundra. It is sort of a combination between Saint Augustine and a National Academy of Sciences report.

The passages on climate change, which will draw some of the most attention, go far beyond an affirmation of the consensus view of science that it is caused by humans. It is clear that the pope and his advisers have dug deeply into the issue and discourse confidently about problems such as ocean acidification and polar melt.

Although climate has been the central focus in the document, it is truly about the environment more broadly — “our common home,” as the text puts it in multiple passages — and also lays out problems related to water security, air quality, species loss and deforestation.

The pope criticizes pressure from the West to impose “reproductive health” polices on the developing world, but he also acknowledges that “unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and sustainable use of the environment. “

When considering sustainable development, he writes, “we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.”

In the big picture, “Laudato Si,” or “Be Praised” (or “Praised Be”), was a poetic effort, theologians said, to emphasize a reading of the Bible that sees humans as the Earth’s relatives or partners — not its dominators. Francis chose the name for the encyclical from a famous 13th-century prayer that refers to “Sister Moon” and “Brother Sun,” and for inspiration, he looked no further than his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, a celebrated figure in the church known for his affinity to nature.

The widespread belief that God gave humans power over the Earth “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible,” said the National Catholic Reporter in one of the more extensive English translations of the draft.

David Cloutier, a theologian at Mount St. Mary’s, a Catholic university, said the pope was placing potential environmental disaster into a moral context, along with consumerism, lack of action and a disregard for what traditional Catholicism would see as basic gender and family norms.

“Pope Francis is helping people understand that environmental commitment is part of being Catholic,” Cloutier said. “Oftentimes we just seem to be arguing about whether this is a problem at all. I’m hopeful the strong language will push people toward, ‘This is a problem, now what are the best solutions to the problem?’ “

He calls for global regulatory norms to prevent unacceptable actions — such as when powerful companies dump contaminated waste or offshore polluting industries in other countries.

But he also acknowledges the difficulty of achieving broad consensus, writing that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

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Washington Post staff writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey and correspondents Stefano Pitrelli and Pietro Lombardi contributed to this report.