Pope Francis climate change encyclical seeks to transform debate

The pope will publish the first encyclical on environmental protection on Thursday in a continued effort to defend the poor against the effects of climate change.

Gregorio Borgia/AP
Pope Francis waves to faithful at the end of the Angelus prayer he recited from his studio's window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican on Sunday.

In anticipation of the upcoming UN summit on climate change this year, Pope Francis will release a papal encyclical on Thursday urging people to act.

The document, called "Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home," will paint climate change as a moral, rather than a political, issue, focusing on how poor communities are affected, Reuters reports. Those familiar with the encyclical have said it will censure the “throw-away” lifestyles of wealthy nations.

This will be the first papal encyclical to focus exclusively on protecting the environment. Some have criticized the pope for getting involved in climate change discussions; US Republican 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently advised him to “leave science to the scientists.” But examining the moral side of a political or scientific issue, others argue, is part of the papal territory.

“It is within the pope’s competence and authority to call attention to our moral responsibilities and duties in the face of the best scientific theory out there,” John Cavadini, University of Notre Dame professor of theology and director of the Institute for Church Life, told Reuters, “especially when the consequences of not doing so are serious.”

Researchers have extensively studied the impact of climate change on the poor. Results have generally shown that global warming does not affect everyone equally; its impacts are likely to be felt more acutely by the developing than by the developed, a 2012 World Bank report found.

Poor communities’ vulnerabilities to climate change, the study suggested, stem from several disadvantages, including geographic location and inadequate infrastructure. “No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change,” the report said. “However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world's poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt.”

Extreme heat waves would be dangerous for tropical regions where temperatures are already high, for example, while rising sea level and natural disasters like typhoons would threaten coastal communities that do not have the resources to prepare for or recover from them. Agriculturally dependent regions would suffer most from droughts and floods.

Filipino climate negotiator Naderev Saño told The Guardian in 2013 that frequent typhoons have taken a great toll on the Philippines’ economy.

“Each destructive typhoon season costs us 2% of our GDP, and the reconstruction costs a further 2%, which means we lose nearly 5% of our economy every year to storms,” he said. “We have received no climate finance to adapt or to prepare ourselves for typhoons and other extreme weather we are now experiencing.”

In the United States, climate change has also been seen to affect the poor disproportionately. A 2014 study published in Health & Place showed that in New York City, more heat-related deaths occurred in poorer communities, due to factors like low housing quality and lack of access to air conditioning.

When the pope’s encyclical is released Thursday, a private debriefing will be held between the Vatican and ambassadors from 170 countries. Pope Francis announced in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, though, that the message is “addressed to everyone” and that he hopes to inspire people to take "greater responsibility for the common home that God has entrusted to us.”

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