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About a lot more than climate change

Since Praise Be: On care for our common home (Laudato Si) was published on 18 June 2015, many people have been claiming that it was the climate change encyclical.

But even a cursory reading of the document makes it clear that it also deals with poverty, the destruction of biodiversity, the pollution of fresh water and the oceans, extractive industries and waste.

At a two-day meeting in Rome on People and the Planet First: The Imperative to Change, held on July 2 and 3 last year, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and an international alliance of Catholic development agencies, Peter Cardinal Turkson said on a number of occasions that the encyclical was about much more than climate change.

In the past, the Catholic Church has not always spoken out emphatically on the issue of climate change. 

Her voice was quite mute during the 1980s and 1990s after the climate change debate began with the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1987, as well as the first decade of the 21st century.

This ambivalence changed dramatically with the publication of Praise Be in June 2015. In No. 23, Pope Francis states, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all... a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.

“In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and it would appear, by the increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.”

The pope names the gases involved in climate change. “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—No.23).

He then links this to the “model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuel” (No.23).

The central theme of the encyclical, which links the plight of the poor with care of earth is taken up here, as well when he claims that “the worst impact will be felt by developing countries in coming decades” (No.25).

In No. 51, the pope states, “The (global) warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”

Pope Francis reminds us that we have obligations to the poor and to future generations when he writes, “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive” (No.96).

He is also convinced that we need technologies “based on the use of fossil fuels—especially, coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas needs to be progressively replaced without delay” (No.163).

Pope Francis is not the first pope to write about climate change. In his World Day of Peace Message for 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation.”

He says, “The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related greenhouse effect have now reached crisis proportion as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs” (No.6).

During the past two centuries, human activity has literally changed the chemistry of the air and the projected impact of this on humans and other creatures will be devastating.

The atmosphere of planet Earth is composed of a thin layer of gases. The principal gases, nitrogen and oxygen, are responsible for 78 per cent and 21 per cent of the atmosphere respectively.

There are also minute amounts of other gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons. These gases, sometimes called greenhouse gases, trap infra-red radiation from the sun, which otherwise would be passed back into space.

But they are important, because if the atmosphere did not have these gases, the average global temperature would be minus 18 degrees Celsius, which would mean that the earth would be too cold to sustain complex life forms.

The presence of these gases in our atmosphere means that the average global temperature is plus 15 degrees Celsius, which makes it highly conducive for life to flourish in almost every part of the globe.



          • Father Sean McDonagh