The Pope and climate change

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Most observers are likely to agree that the visit of Pope Francis has reinvigorated the faith of the millions of Catholics in the only predominantly Christian country in Asia. But that visit was also an expression and in furtherance of the Pope’s commitment to the defense of the environment.

His visit to the Philippines, he emphasized, was primarily intended for him to be with the survivors and victims of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which in 2013 was the latest aberration in a series of weather anomalies in typhoon-prone Philippines. Not only was it the most powerful typhoon to ever make landfall; it was also part of a succession of increasingly stronger typhoons that over the last five years have smashed into the Philippines and made global warming and its consequences issues of life and death for thousands of Filipinos.

The Pope’s concern for the Yolanda survivors was pointedly focused on the environment, so the news that he’s been working for months on an encyclical on climate change, in which he’s likely to call for more aggressive action on global warming, should come as no surprise.

It’s not a sudden advocacy. His choice of the name he wanted to be known by, Francis, was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. The Pope has also spoken a number of times on the need to respect and defend nature. In May 2014, for example, after a five-day Vatican-sponsored workshop on “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility” in which legal scholars, microbiologists, philosophers, economists and other experts were in attendance, he asked the faithful all over the world to “safeguard creation, because if we destroy creation, creation will destroy us.”

Addressing a huge crowd in Rome, the Pope argued that the “beauty of nature and the grandeur of the cosmos” should be valued by Christians. Failure to do so, he said, can lead to “disastrous consequences” for mankind.

And during a press conference while on his way to the Philippines, the Pope declared that global warming was mostly the result of human activity. He also said he would release his encyclical before the United Nations climate change talks in Paris this November.

“I don’t know if it (human activity) is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face. We have, in a sense, taken over nature,” he told interviewers.

But the encyclical on climate change is likely to deepen mistrust of the Pope among US conservatives (who either deny the reality of climate change, or reject the idea that it is man-made), says an Associated Press report.

“Conservative distrust of Pope Francis, which has been building in the US throughout his pontificate, is reaching a boiling point over his plan to urge action on climate change — and to do so through a document traditionally used for the most important papal teachings,” said AP.

More accurately, however, can the attitude of US conservatives be described as hostility rather than mere distrust. Any Papal encyclical urging action on climate change is necessarily going to propose solutions — and the real solutions to the problem are likely to reiterate the Pope’s view that not only is climate change “mostly man-made,” even more specifically is it the doing of the huge corporations that in much of the developed countries of North America and Europe, plus Japan and China, are engaged in the uncontrolled and profitable exploitation of the world’s resources.

The billion-dollar fear, in short, is that the encyclical will call for either global action to regulate capitalism, in direct opposition to the neo-liberal argument that only the operation of the free market should regulate trade and business, or demand that the corporations that dominate the global economy restrain themselves. Either way it will imply that these corporations have been irresponsible and unchristian — and idolatrous.

If the Pope’s environmental advocacy isn’t new, neither is conservative hostility. As early as 2013, some US conservatives were already describing as “pure Marxism” his description of unregulated capitalism as “the new tyranny” driven by the “idolatry of money” in his 84-page document, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) — basically the “platform” of his pontificate, which the Vatican released in November that year.

Most US conservatives being hardly intellectual giants, in addition to being spokespersons of global capitalism and US interests, their reaction was hardly unexpected. Conservatism has a totally different meaning in the US, where even Barack Obama, despite his support from finance capital, has been described as a “socialist” on the mere strength of his State interventionist policies on such issues as health care, which in Europe and Canada have been in place for decades. With justice can one amend the term conservative in the US into “ultra-conservative.”

But one would have expected, anyway, that there would be no arguing as far as the threat and reality of climate change are concerned. But the fact is that there is no lack of groups in the US, funded by various ultra-conservative organizations, that have not only been arguing that climate change is “natural,” but in some instances even claiming that it’s a “hoax.”

Tell that to the victims and survivors of the powerful typhoons, especially Yolanda, that have smashed into the Philippines and the floods that have inundated several provinces and killed tens of thousands over the last five years (Juan, 2010;Wilma, 2011; Pablo, 2012; Yolanda 2013). Tell that to those island countries of the Pacific that have been vainly trying to cope with rising sea levels. Tell that to the European countries that have experienced record flooding over the last four years.

Try as US conservatives might to deny it, the science of climate change is fairly well established. The hour is actually late, many countries including the Philippines already exhibiting the consequences of global warming. But the industrialized countries, especially the US, have been resisting the adoption of global action that would really make some difference in the lives of the millions affected by it.

A papal encyclical — no matter the opposition of US and other conservatives in the industrialized countries of the world — just might help make a difference by mobilizing the one billion Catholics all over the globe in the enterprise of compelling the worst polluters and plunderers of the world’s resources to take responsibility for the planet.

Along the way, the Pope of the People would also be bringing the Church into the 21st century as the advocate of science that in past centuries it hasn’t been. Meanwhile, whether that encyclical would also be “pure Marxism” or not is of no consequence because labels don’t matter: whatever one’s politics — conservative, liberal or radical — everyone will be, or are already suffering from, the impact of climate change. It’s not about labels but about human survival.

Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Twitter: @luisteodoro

Published in Business World
January 22, 2015

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