The Pope’s Encyclical on the climate: ‘On Care for Our Common Home’, has finally been released. Evoking St Francis before him, the Pope reminds us that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life, and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us”.
The sister, we are told, now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.
The urgent challenge, says the 21st-century Francis, is to protect our common home, bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development. The Pope urgently appeals for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of the planet. We need, he says, a conversation.
The Pope’s religious authority coupled with his personal charisma will sway many, not least in the United States. His initiative will be part of the sea-change already underway, the religious counterpart to the new political accord between China and the US on climate policy. Doctrinally, the 2015 Encyclical will prove seminal, modifying if not replacing the Genesis-derived notion of human dominion with human stewardship.
It’s worth acknowledging, however, that the encyclical is an illustration of the Church catching up, rather than pioneering anything that is qualitatively new. For the ‘conversation’ is, after all, 30 years old. The dialogue commenced with the scientists acknowledging the existence of global warming in 1985 and releasing the first IPCC report in 1990. And perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist, Potsdam’s Hans Joachim Schellnhűber, testified to the UN Security Council in 2013 about the implications of dangerous climate change for international peace and security, and by implication, the Council’s responsibility for that.
Science and religion are forging a modern concordat of their own. Schellnhűber released his own statement overnight as well. In ‘Common Ground’, he says that “The urgency to act … [as] expressed in the Encyclical mirrors the scientific findings which have accumulated into an overwhelming body of evidence. If we fail to strongly reduce these emissions and to bend the warming curve, we, our neighbours and children will be exposed to intolerable risks”.
Again, the commonality of human concern is not entirely new. Setting aside the philosophical insights of the past three millennia, the modern political expression was found in the 1987 Brundlandt Report, ‘Our Common Future’ which noted the new awareness of climate change, and the Carlsson-Ramphal Report of 1995, ‘Our Global Neighbourhood’, which asserted all that is to be found in today’s dual releases.
And then there are the diplomats who, in Bonn over the past two weeks, have endured their periodic writhing in labour, and produced the latest 85-page draft text of the forthcoming Paris Agreement. The text, acknowledging climate change as a matter of common human concern and requiring a global solution, then falls prey to the competitive pursuit of 194 national interests.
It is only when the political leaders, assembled at summit level, not for rhetoric in the General Assembly but for decisions in the Security Council, transcend national interpretation of the global interest and commit their countries to a genuine global solution, that St Francis of Assis, and his spiritual heir of today, will have their prayers answered.