The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), which occurred in Paris last December, resulted in an agreement to try to stop climate change. Six months earlier, Pope Francis published the encyclical, Laudato Si’. This document immediately commanded respect for contributing an essential voice to discussions and debates about climate change for four points it made.
First, the Pope brought environmental issues into a spiritual and religious plane. He invited leaders from other faiths to engage with the subject from within the spiritual and intellectual frameworks of their traditions, and to call on the faithful to generate and achieve impactful changes, beginning with individual lifestyles.
Second, he reinforced the idea of a common home, proposing in religious terms the finite nature of human space, and, therefore, the limitations that this imposes on us. Recognizing that we inhabit a single planet and are living in an interdependent manner obligates us to accept one of ecology’s premises: for now, we cannot live anywhere else. In other words, we must take care of the means that sustain our life, even more so if we believe the planet to be a divine creation. In addition, we must take others into account, including human beings and other forms of life on Earth, as well as the biotic and physical environment that supports all. The idea of a whole, of completeness, is one of the assumptions of the pope’s ecological discourse and is the foundation of the notion of a common home.
Third, he reinforced the outstanding point of individual responsibility, the call to reflect on what the Patriarch Bartholomew calls “small ecological damage,” and, therefore, to recognize, in the patriarch’s words, “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation” (quoted in Laudato Si’, 8). The subject of individual responsibility is vital for us to able to feel that we are part of an effective response. A first assumption is that our actions generate impacts, some visible, some less evident. If we reflect on small daily examples—where the waste that we generate goes, or the emissions from our cars, in addition to our fuel consumption—we can carry out an exercise that guides our behavior. At the levels of states and individuals there are common but distinct responsibilities, and we can categorize them, but, in the end, each action produces an effect and these effects are what call us to think about reparation or mitigation.
Fourth, the encyclical recognized demands from developing countries regarding the existence of an “ecological debt” that industrialized countries generated vis-à-vis the poorest countries, and it also affirmed that the economy and science cannot be the sole foundations for responding to the many forms of inequality. A diversity of perspectives and experiences in the context of ways of life for persons and cultures will be necessary to inform impactful responses. However, such responses cannot engender another elitism: an “environmentalism” according to which only the people with economic resources can live in places that are friendly to nature and can consume products that are friendly to the environment.
Once again, the encyclical adhered to the calls of ecological movements inviting us to transform consumption patterns, to change the culture that impels us to discard, throw away, and buy again, that is, conduct based on speed, and that which is consumable and disposable. Such an imperative falsely aligns human security with accumulation of material objects, and a lifestyle and mentality according to which everything is replaceable, including human beings.
Pope Francis touches on many issues that, as environmentalists, we should revisit and implement to reaffirm the discourse that calls for change, and in the case of climate change, to work to slow and reverse the process. Such creative thought and courageous action now—in our time—would be the best gift for the future, the truest way to honor our commitment to care for our common home and one another.