The Italian translation of Pope Francis’s much-anticipated encyclical letter on humans, climate and nature was posted yesterday by L’Espresso, one of Italy’s leading weekly news magazines. The Vatican news office says it’s not the final version but is not questioning the authenticity of the document. There’s every indication that the themes, if not every punctuation mark, reflect what is coming later this week.
ENCYCLICAL LETTER OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON TAKING CARE OF OUR COMMON HOUSE
1. “Be praised, my Lord,” sang saint Francis of Assisi. In this beautiful chant he reminded us that our common house is also like a sister, with whom we divide our life, and like a beautiful mother who takes us in her arms. “Be praised, my Lord, for our sister mother Earth, who sustains us and rules, and produces various fruits with colorful flowers and grass.” [Saint Francis, Canticle of the creatures].
2. This sister protests the evil that we provoke, because of the irresponsible use and of the abuse of the goods that God has placed in her. We grew up thinking that we were its owners and rulers, allowed to plunder it.
The violence that exists in the human heart wounded by sin is also manifested in the symptoms of the disease we feel in soil, water, air and in the living things. Therefore, among the most abandoned and ill treated poor we find our oppressed and devastated Earth, which “moans and suffers the pains of childbirth” [Romans 8:22].
We forget that we ourselves are Earth [Genesis 2:7]. Our own body is made of the elements of the planet, its air is what gives us breath and its water gives us life and restores.
I. Pollution and climate change
Pollution, waste and scrap culture
20. There are forms of pollution which affect people every day. The exposure to air pollutants produces a large spectrum of health effects, in particular on the most poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. We get sick, for instance, due to the inhalation of high amounts of smoke produced by fuels used for cooking or heating. Add to that the pollution that affects all, caused by transportation, by industrial fumes, by the discharge of substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, by fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and toxic pesticides in general. The technology, which, connected to finance, claims to be the only solution to these problems, in fact is not capable of seeing the mystery of the multiple relationships which exist between things, and because of this, sometimes solves a problem by creating another.
21. One must also consider pollution produced by waste, including hazardous waste present in various environments. We produce hundreds of millions of tons of waste a year, many of which are not biodegradable: household and commercial waste, demolition products, clinical waste, electronic or industrial waste and highly toxic and radioactive waste. The Earth, our home, seems to turn more and more into a huge garbage dump. In many places on the planet, the elderly remember with nostalgia the landscapes of the past, which now appear to be submerged in junk. The industrial waste as well as the chemicals used in cities and fields can produce an effect of bio-accumulation in the bodies of the inhabitants of neighboring areas, which occurs even when the amount of a toxic element in a given place is low. Many times one takes action only when these produced irreversible effects on people’s health.
22. These issues are intimately linked to the culture of waste, affecting so much the human beings left behind when the things turn quickly into trash. Let us realize, for example, that most of the paper that is produced is thrown away and not recycled. We find it hard to admit that the operation of natural ecosystems is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients that feed the herbivores; these in turn feed the carnivores, which provide a lot of organic waste, which give rise to a new generation of plants. In contrast, the industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the ability to absorb and reuse waste and slag. We have not yet succeeded in adopting a circular pattern of production which ensures resources for all and for the future generations, and which requires us to limit the use of non-renewable resources, to moderate consumption, to maximize the efficiency of the exploitation, to reuse and to recycle. Addressing this issue would be a way to counter the culture of waste which ends up damaging the whole planet, but we can see that progress in this direction is still very limited.
Climate as a common good
23. The climate is a common good of all and for all. It is, at a global level, a complex system connected to many essential conditions for human life. There is a very consistent scientific consensus indicating that we are in the presence of a disturbing heating of the climate system. In recent decades, this warming was accompanied by the constant rising of the sea level, and it is also hard not to relate it with the rise in extreme weather events, regardless of the fact that we can not attribute a scientifically determined cause to each phenomenon in particular. Humanity is called to become aware of the need to change styles of life, of production and consumption, in order to combat this heating or, at least, the human causes which produce or accentuate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanism, the changes in the orbit and the axis of the Earth, the solar cycle), but numerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming in recent decades it is due to the large concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) mainly emitted due to human activity. Their concentration in the atmosphere prevents the heat of the solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space. This is especially enhanced by the model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the center of the global energy system. It is also affected by the increase of the practice of changing land use, mainly by deforestation for agricultural purposes.
24. In turn, the heating has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious cycle which aggravates the situation even more and which will affect the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in the hottest areas, and will result in the extinction of a part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting of polar and high altitude ice threaten the leakage of methane gas which carries high risks, and the decomposition of frozen organic matter could further accentuate the emission of carbon dioxide. In turn, the loss of tropical forests makes things worse, since these help to mitigate the climate change. The pollution produced by carbon dioxide increases the acidity of the oceans and affects the marine food chain. If the current trend continues, this century could witness climate change unheard of, and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. The raise of the level of the sea, for example, could create situations of extreme gravity when taking into account that a quarter of the world population lives by the sea or very close to it, and that most megacities are located in coastal areas.
25. Climate change is a global problem with serious environmental, social, economic, distribution and policy implications, and make up one of the main current challenges for humanity. The heaviest impacts will probably fall in the coming decades upon developing countries. Many poor people live in places particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their livelihoods depend heavily on natural reserves and on so-called ecosystem services, such as agriculture, fisheries and forest resources. These people have no other economic opportunities or resources which would enable them to adapt to climate impacts or cope with catastrophic situations, and they have little access to social services and protection. For example, changes in climate give rise to migrations of animals and plants which can not always adapt, and this in turn affects the productive resources of the poorest, who are thus forced to migrate with great uncertainty about the future of their lives and of their children’s lives. The increase of migrants fleeing the misery compounded by environmental degradation, who are not recognized as refugees in international conventions and who carry the burden of their lives abandoned without any protection of the law is tragic. Unfortunately there is a general indifference in the face of these tragedies, which are still occurring in different parts of the world. The lack of response to these dramas of our brothers and sisters is a sign of loss of that sense of responsibility for our likes which underpins any civilized society.
26. Many of those who hold more resources and more economic or political power seem to focus especially on masking the problems or hiding the symptoms, seeking only to reduce some negative impacts of climate change. But many symptoms indicate that these effects could get worse if we continue the current patterns of production and consumption. Therefore it has become urgent and compelling to develop policies so that in the coming years the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases is reduced drastically, for instance by replacing fossil fuels and by developing renewable energy sources. In the world there is a small level of access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop appropriate technology for storage. However, in some countries there has been progress which begins to be significant, although it is far away from reaching a meaningful proportion. There were also some investments in the means of production and transport which consume less energy and require a smaller amount of raw materials, as well as in ways of constructing or renovating buildings which improve energy efficiency. But these good practices are far from becoming general.
VII. DIVERSITY OF OPINIONS
60. Finally, let us admit that different visions and ways of thinking about this situation and about its possible solutions have developed. From one extreme, some maintain at all costs the myth of progress and say that the ecological problems will be solved simply by new technical applications, not by ethical considerations or fundamental changes. From the other extreme, others believe that the human species, no matter what it does, can only be a threat and compromise the global ecosystem, so that humanity should reduce its presence on the planet and prevent any kind of interaction with it. Between these extremes, reflection should identify possible future scenarios, because there is not only one possible solution. This would leave room for a variety of contributions, which could enter into a dialogue aimed at a full answer.
61. On many concrete issues the Church has no reason to propose a final word and understands that it must listen to and promote honest debate among scientists, respecting the diversity of opinion. But it suffices to look at reality with sincerity to see that there is a major deterioration of our common home. Hope makes us think that there is always a way out, that we can always change course, that we can always do something to solve the problems. However, we seem to experience symptoms of a breaking point, because of the great speed of the changes and of the degradation, which manifests itself both through regional natural disasters and through social or financial crises, as the problems of the world cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions which are already particularly at risk and, besides any catastrophic predictions, it is certain that the current world system is unsustainable from many different points of view, because we have stopped thinking at the end goals of human action: “If one looks across the regions of our planet, one realizes immediately that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations” [John Paul II, Message for the World Peace Day, 1990]