Heaven belongs to us all – the new papal encyclical

Guest post by Brigitte Knopf

With his encyclical “Laudato Si” the Pope has written more than a moral appeal without obligation. He has presented a pioneering political analysis with great explosive power, which will probably determine the public debate on climate change, poverty and inequality for years to come. Thus, the encyclical is also highly relevant to me as a non-Catholic and non-believer; the implications of the encyclical are very apparent through the eyes of a secular person.

The core of the encyclical makes clear that global warming is a “global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods” (25 – where the numbers refer to the numbering in the encyclical). The reasons identified are mainly the current models of production and consumption (26). The encyclical emphasizes that the gravest effects of climate change and the increasing inequality are suffered by the poorest (48). Since we face a complex socio-ecological crisis, strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty (139). So far, however, governments have not found a solution for the over-exploitation of the global commons, such as atmosphere, oceans, and forests (169). Therefore, the encyclical focusses on actors, such as non-governmental organizations, cooperatives and intermediate groups (179) and calls for a dialogue between politics, science, business and religion.

The encyclical is, with 246 individual points, too extensive to be discussed in here in its entirety, but three aspects are particularly noteworthy:

  1. it is based unequivocally onthe scientific consensusthat global warmingis taking placeand that climate changeis man-made; itrejects thedenialof anthropogenicwarming;
  2. it unmasks the political and economic structures of power behind the climate change debate and stresses the importance of non-state actors in achieving change; and
  3. it defines the atmosphere and the environment as a common good rather than a “no man’s land”, available for anyone to pollute. This underlines that climate change is strongly related to the issues of justice and property rights.

1.     The Pope and science

The statements of the Pope concerning the scientific basis are in principle nothing new. The scientific consensus is recognized in the encyclical at the outset:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. […] A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases […] released mainly as a result of human activity (23).

Moreover, the Pope refers to the scientifically long-established fact that the use of fossil fuels and deforestation are the main causes of climate change (23).

What is now a commonplace in Europe is not uniformly accepted in the US. A turbulent debate surrounding the encyclical began even before its official publication. This is understandable, given that there are many in the US who still cast doubt on the scientific basis of climate change. Even Jeb Bush, the presidential candidate, does not deny climate change itself, but says that the human role in climate change is “convoluted“. Rick Santorum, also a Republican presidential candidate, has actually rejected the right of the Pope to comment on the scientific basis of climate change. There is no doubt that there will be a heated argument on this part of the encyclical especially in the US which will also frame the American debate on the future international climate agreement that is expected to be negotiated by the end of this year in Paris.

2.     The Pope and politics

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