When Pope Francis issued his “environmental” encyclical document, entitled "Laudato Si", he undoubtedly sought to push world leaders towards meaningful action ahead of the Paris Climate Summit later this year. The central theme of Francis' powerful address is that humanity stands alone in its responsibility for past, present, and future climate-related issues facing the planet.
Francis’ remarks call for nothing short of a "bold cultural revolution" in how humanity interacts with the environment. For him, this will begin with a radical shift in how we produce and consume energy. He continues in the piece however, condemning a myriad of other aspects of modern culture that he believes are contributing to climate change - including consumerism and an unhealthy obsession with new technology.
By going further than any prior Pope on the topic, Francis has invited controversy from those on either side of the “debate.” Even before it was released to the public many were aware of the fact that it contained contentious, even inflammatory, content. Francis reserved his harshest criticism for conservative economic principles that have played a role in preventing serious action to stop climate change. He dismissed free market solutions to the problem, called trickle-down economics "crude" and "naïve," and criticized the economic culture that prizes profits over human welfare. Francis also wagged his finger at big business and energy companies for their role in contributing to climate change, as well as the pollution of the earth's air and water.
It came as no surprise, then, that the criticism of Francis' encyclical came primarily from conservative groups and politicians, including Catholic Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush. Francis' encyclical was also loudly criticized by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. However, outside of conservative circles, the encyclical was widely praised, earning support from a variety of figures, environmental groups and energy companies, including Secretary of State John Kerry, The Sierra Club, Easymax - and, of course, climate scientists.
The uproar surrounding Francis' encyclical has served to draw awareness towards the reality of climate change and the need to move towards cleaner energy. While the Catholic Church does not enjoy the power it held centuries ago, 1.2 billion people still identify as Catholic – giving him a ready and listening audience. Moreover, Francis is one of the most respected leaders in the world today, even among non-Catholics. And while encyclicals are typically meant as an address to Catholics around the world, Francis addressed his to "every person living on this planet."
We may already be seeing the impact of Francis' address to the world. About two weeks after the encyclical was officially released, the United States and Brazil agreed to a deal to significantly reduce carbon emissions and swap traditional energy sources like crude oil and natural gas for renewable sources like geothermal, solar and wind. Francis may be more popular in Latin America than in any other part of the world, and his leadership on climate change has helped to bring those nations to the table.
"Laudato Si" has been successful in part because Francis used his influence to shift the paradigm of the debate and shine a spotlight on the citizens of developing countries which will be harmed the most by climate change. While wealthier countries will utilize their resources to adapt to the changing climate, poorer nations will be unable to, a theme already focused on by the World Health Organization. Drought, severe storms, and rising sea levels already plague many of the world's poorest nations, and Francis pointed to this reality as an urgent reminder that halting climate change is a moral issue, as well as a scientific one.
The encyclical also shows that Francis is among the most science-aware Popes in the church's history, as well as an ally to environmentalists and ecologists. Drawing upon the collective wisdom of theologians, scholars, and former Popes for this teaching document, he also sought input from climate and environmental scientists. Francis has lived up to his namesake by showing his talent for reaching out to people of different beliefs, making a call for science and religion to work together.
It's too soon to tell just how great an impact Francis' encyclical might make on efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. But with the Paris talks only months away, we may look back on "Laudato Si" as one of the most genuine pleas for better stewardship of our Earthly home.
[Beth Kelly is a Midwestern blogger from Lansing, Michigan. A graduate of DePaul University, she’s passionate about covering updates in the clean technology space and other innovations driving the renewable energy movement forward. She is a strong advocate of the “maker movement” and self-sufficient, green living. You can find her on Twitter @bkelly_88 ]