Francis recasts the debate about climate change

The papal encyclical on Earth’s ecological crisis will shift the political landscape on climate change [23 June 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Pope Francis has spoken, and he says this: Life on earth is in danger as a result of human excesses, including the burning of fossil fuels, and we must act swiftly and decisively to limit the damage.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

His long-anticipated encyclical “on care for our common home” is a ringing declaration that Catholics and the rest of us must change how we exercise and regulate our power over nature.

This power, says Francis – made possible by the fossil fuel that’s driven the industrial revolution – is unprecedented in the governmental and financial muscle behind it, in its advanced technology and in its ubiquitous presence everywhere on the planet.

Francis has asked those of us in developed economies to pause in our headlong rush (to where?) and consider the bigger implications of what’s happening.

At the core of his message is the impact on the natural world of high consumption levels in developed societies: “We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions.”

He has challenged all of us – not just Catholics but “every person living on this planet” – to each consider “the violence present in our hearts… reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air, and in all forms of life”.

“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system… [which is] a common good, belonging to and meant for all,” says Francis. That last point is important. Some people behave as if they have all the rights.

He continues: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications… one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

This is much more than a homily on abused nature. Looking through the eyes of the Assisi friar whose name he adopted, Francis urges us to see “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace”.

Francis points out that all of today’s big global issues – climate change, water scarcity, species extinction, quality of life, social breakdown and global inequality – arise out of a mindset of domination and acquisitiveness. We won’t solve any of them, he says, without addressing them all.

He urges “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet… a conversation which includes everyone.” His is a plea for governments and the rest of us to recognise and act on the principles of long-term justice over short-term profit, for common rights over private ones.

Opposition by entrenched interests is one limit on effective environmental reform; another is “a more general lack of interest”. Says Francis, “we require a new and universal solidarity.”

The Pope has got to the heart of our problem. In our fractured political landscape in Australia, as in North America and elsewhere, solidarity is notable only by its absence. Once-universal positions on difficult issues – immigration is an example – are now victim to populism and partisan crossfire.

Resource extraction interests and their political allies have branded all environmentalists “extreme” and spuriously sought to link them with past extremism, but this is a diversion to mask their own excesses. A concern for the natural environment is anything but extreme.

Francis’s message has huge import in Australia. We’ve had religious leaders speak out for the climate and the planet before, but never a leader of such stature in our own country, and never so decisively and comprehensively, with no wriggle room for misunderstanding.

Given Cardinal George Pell’s past scepticism it will be interesting to see how Australia’s Catholic hierarchy manages the Pope’s message. In talking about it last week, Archbishop Denis Hart struggled with what he clearly found to be unfamiliar terminology around climate change.

For his part, Francis brings his own, different language to a debate that has hitherto been all about science. His words are the words of religion and poetry, telling of our sins in despoiling our planetary home and our sacred duty to put things right.

We’ve heard all about the science of climate change. Reason has brought us this far, but there comes a time when reason isn’t enough, and it’s now.

Francis is right: this is a deeply moral matter, or as Kevin Rudd famously said once, the greatest moral challenge of our time. We must all acknowledge our human responsibility for both causing and fixing the problem.

I’m not a Catholic. I was once Anglican, but decided that a religious path was not for me, and I can’t see myself returning to the fold. But Francis’s message resonates strongly with me. I see now that religion can lift this debate to another level.

And it can inspire. We must not lose heart, says Francis: “In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God… Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”

Whatever the huge obstacles ahead, and whatever our conception of God, that is a noble and worthy aspiration. With explosive power, Francis has recast the climate change debate. All strength to him, and to those who follow him in faith.

• It was disappointing to hear news that there are moves in the Labor Party to drop Lisa Singh, opposition climate representative in the Senate and a tireless advocate for strong emissions action, to an unwinnable position on the party’s Senate ticket for the next election, due later next year. Climate action needs all the champions it can muster in the years ahead, but a move like that would strongly indicate a return to the dark days of 2010, when Labor under Kevin Rudd backed away from fighting an election over his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. At a time when public opinion is moving strongly towards more effective climate action, that’s the last thing Labor needs.

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