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Pope Francis calls for urgent action on climate change in encyclical

Alberto Pizzoli, AFP | Pope Francis called for urgent action on climate change in his much-anticipated encyclical "Laudato Si" published on June 18, 2015

Pope Francis called for urgent action on climate change on Thursday in his much anticipated encyclical on the environment.

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Although his predecessors have weighed in on the issue in the past, it is the first time a pope has devoted an entire encyclical to the subject. The symbolic move couldn’t come at a more opportune moment: just six months ahead of the COP21 climate change conference in Paris.

The 184-page document, which is addressed to the world’s population, is entitled "Laudato Si"(or “Praise be”) in reference to the Canticle of the Creatures, a prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi entirely dedicated to nature. Saint Francis, who advocated love and respect for all God’s creatures, is known as the patron saint of ecology.

The pope warns in "Laudato Si" of the destruction of entire ecosystems if urgent action isn’t taken on climate change.

“If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us,” he wrote.

Pope Francis called for “decisive action, here and now” to reduce carbon emissions, citing numerous scientific studies indicating that global warming is mainly due to human activity.

“It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity,” he wrote.

He also stressed that climate change has disproportionately affected the world’s poor, even though it has been mostly driven by wealthy countries.

“The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world,” he wrote, calling for developed nations to curb excessive consumerism and waste.

The church and the environment

It is not the first time that the church has waded into the debate on climate change.

“The first to weigh in on the question were the Jesuits during the 1970s,” Odon Vallet, a historian of religion, told FRANCE 24, noting that Pope Francis is a Jesuit.

Since then, popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have all written on the issue, questioning humanity’s relationship to the environment.

“Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation,” pope John Paul II wrote in 1987.

In a symbolic gesture, pope Benedict XVI had solar panels installed at the Vatican in 2008.

But Vallet pointed out that up until now, the Church’s stance on the environment has been limited.

“There was always the fear that ecology would lead to the deification of nature or the earth, which, in paganism, is embodied by a god named Gaïa,” he said. “The Catholic Church calls for the respect of nature, but as a creation, not the creator.”

Beyond the environment, the defence of life

There are also many Catholics who remember the Book of Genesis from the Old Testament of the Bible, which recounts the creation of the world. In it God tells Adam and Eve to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”.

It is a very un-environmental approach to humanity's relationship with nature, even if in later verses man is ordered to cultivate and protect the Garden of Eden, hinting at the idea it will be passed down to future generations.

But the text’s mixed messages regarding the environment strikes at the heart of a major concern for the Catholic Church: the defence of human life.

“The Vatican has always been against contraception, even though we know that population growth is harmful to the environment,” Vallet said.

In "Laudato Si", Pope Francis dismisses population control as a solution to climate change. Instead, he emphasises the need to redistribute wealth to poor countries, as well as fight against waste.

The pope also writes about “human ecology”, drawing a link between social inequity, the defence of life and nature.

“When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected,” he wrote.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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