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Pope Francis Sounds the Alarm on Climate Change

Does a hard-hitting policy statement on climate change make Pope Francis the new environmental prophet?

Pope Francis greets the pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, September 10, 2014. (Photo: giulio napolitano /

The global political establishment has been slow to act on the most serious environmental threat facing the planet – climate change. Pope Francis hopes to change this by issuing a formal cry of alarm released today.

Some are calling the pope’s already leaked document the most radical statement yet by any major world leader on the climate crisis. The title of the pope’s encyclical or policy letter is Laudito Si, Latin for “Praised Be,” a refrain from a popular prayer of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who is beloved for his reverence for the natural world.

Yet Francis’ pastoral letter will not be a poetic reflection on the wonders of nature. It will be a cry of alarm and a call to action. “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us,” the pope writes bluntly. “It’s enough to look at reality with sincerity to see that there’s a great deterioration in our common home,” a leaked copy of the encyclical says.

In the draft, the Pope denounces current world leaders for putting national economic interests above the “global common good.” He also affirms the consensus of science that, “the greater part of global warming in the last decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) emitted above all due to human activity.”

But for millions of Americans this remains a highly controversial statement.

The Pope’s Critics

Earlier in June, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, took the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to task, saying he should “leave science to the scientists and focus on what [he is] really good on, which is theology and morality. When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible.”

Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, the powerful chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who once threw a snowball across the floor of the Senate to demonstrate that climate change is a hoax, chimed in: “Everyone is going to ride the pope now. Isn’t that wonderful. The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.”

“How we use science and what we learn from science about the environment are moral issues.”

The pontiff’s championing of the climate change issue may prove embarrassing to religious conservatives. The encyclical is certain to inject the climate change issue into the Republican race, in which several of those running either deny the scientific reality that it is happening, or downplay its importance.

“Galileo must be turning over in his grave,” wrote Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter, musing on the irony that, “the church is being attacked for agreeing with science after centuries of being accused of ignoring science.”

In an email interview, Reese said, “The encyclical will not be a scientific dissertation. But how we use science and what we learn from science about the environment are moral issues. Given the devastation that could come as a result of climate change (millions could die or become climate refugees), it may be the most important moral issue of the 21st century. Not to speak out on these issues would be a neglect of his duty as pope.”

Reese points out that Francis, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry and worked as a chemical technician prior to entering the seminary, is the first pope in history who has been trained in science.

A Radical Message

The timing of the encyclical is not an accident. The pope is clearly hoping that it is read and reflected on before the United Nations climate change conference, which will be held in Paris in the late fall, and which he plans to attend. Francis will also address the UN General Assembly in New York City during its annual conclave of world leaders in September, during which governments are expected to commit to specific actions to moderate climate change.

Republican Speaker John A. Boehner asked the pope to speak to Congress during his visit to the United States, an invitation that has since been accepted.

“I think Boehner was out of his mind to invite the pope to speak to Congress,” Reese told Truthout. “When the pope mentions climate change, immigration or taking care of the poor, the Democrats are going to jump to their feet and applaud. What are the Republicans going to do?”

“The pope will argue that capitalism leads to the destruction of the environment and the humans who depend on it.”

One area in particular where Boehner will likely get more than he bargained for is Francis’ scathing critique of the nature of the global economy, according to Charles Reid, a professor of law specializing in church-state matters at the University of Saint Thomas in Minneapolis.

“He will argue that capitalism, as it is currently structured, leads to the destruction of the environment and the humans who depend on it,” Reid told Truthout. “There is nothing in the current economic order, which is based on the pursuit of profit at the expense of the common good, which can stop that.”

In a meeting with Latin American and Asian landless peasants in October, the first pope ever from the global South (Francis is from Argentina) put his views bluntly: “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it … Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.”

Pope Francis is said to have conceived the idea for this week’s encyclical during a visit to Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated in 2012 by Typhoon Haiyan. The letter will focus on the disproportionate impact of climate change on the world’s poor who are more likely to live in regions vulnerable to the ravages of climate change like flooding, sea level rise, heat waves and droughts, and who lack the infrastructure to cope with these challenges.

The document will also urge residents of wealthy nations to re-examine their “throwaway” lifestyles, including massive food waste and runaway consumerism. And it says that it’s time for first-world nations to decrease growth and shift needed resources to the developing world. The encyclical labels the excessive burning of oil and gas “evil” and calls for a rapid shift to renewable energy. It also criticizes the use of carbon credits as a way to cut emissions, which Francis says leads to financial speculation instead of direct action to stop polluting.

Changing Hearts and Minds

“The pope really means business,” said Nancy Tuchman, a biologist and the director of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University, Chicago. “Here is a really straight shooter who is going to tell us that we don’t have time to debate whether climate change is happening. We need to act.”

“The scientists are giving us the facts, the empirical data about what is happening on the planet,” Tuchman said in a phone interview. “What world religious leaders can do is help us see this as a human problem. They are able to change hearts; I don’t think scientists can do that.”

NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt agreed, telling Truthout that, “The pope is more tied into what many Christians and others value than are most scientists, and so his value judgments will likely count for more in terms of moving people to act.” Schmidt predicts that, “The encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations.”

Catholics in the US are already more likely than other Christian groups to be concerned about climate change.

While papal encyclicals are not regarded to be infallible, says Charles Reid, as key social documents of the Church, Catholics are obliged to take them “very, very seriously.” This could have a significant impact on public opinion. Observers have suggested, for example, that the papal letter will considerably heat up previously lukewarm support in Latin America and more Catholic parts of Africa for climate action.

Catholics in the United States are already more likely than other Christian groups to be concerned about climate change. Seven in 10 Catholics say that global warming is happening, as opposed to five in 10 Evangelicals, according to a study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Catholics are also more likely than the overall public to advocate for concrete government regulations like limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby, NETWORK, quotes the pope as saying that “the role of Christians is to meddle in politics,” which means, she says, “taking care of the earth, taking care of each other, being responsible. In our society we tend to think individualistically. What Pope Francis knows is that we live in society and that we have a social responsibility to others.”

Climate change is not an abstraction, Campbell adds. “It’s about people in Bangladesh who are losing their land, about people in the Maldives, where the prime minister held a press conference underwater to show that the islands are vanishing as sea levels continue to rise. It’s about poor folks in the US who can’t afford air conditioning. We have to put a human face on it.”


The pope’s climate activism is sure to reignite questions about the impact of other Catholic doctrines, such as the Church’s prohibition of contraception, says Charles Reid. “The key question of sustainability brings up the issue of population. What is the carrying capacity of the planet? What is responsible use of planetary resources? This reopens the controversy that came to the fore in the 1960s with the invention of the birth control pill.”

Some blame the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI entitled Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which banned all forms of “artificial” birth control, for stalling global efforts to establish programs that enable families to decide how many children they want to raise.

Overpopulation arguably ranks together with climate change as one of the biggest challenges to the ecological integrity of the earth. Uncontrolled population growth is one factor that is increasing deforestation, the depletion of the life of the oceans and the fouling of the atmosphere with industrial pollution and greenhouse gases.

Millions more every year will be adopting the same unsustainable lifestyle that is currently trashing our planetary home.

The pope points out in his encyclical that wealthy nations use far more than their share of the world’s resources. People in the global South, as a rule, don’t drive the cars, eat the beef or overconsume the manufactured goods whose production damages the environment. Yet, as standards of living rise in developing countries like India and China, millions more every year will be adopting the same unsustainable lifestyle that is currently trashing our planetary home.

In many developing and developed countries alike, cropland is becoming scarce, wells are going dry as water tables drop and soils are being exhausted as human communities increase beyond the capacity of the land to sustain them. Not only does overpopulation overtax our global life-support system, but it may also cripple our ability to alleviate poverty and insure a minimum standard of living for all of the earth’s inhabitants – one of the pope’s cherished goals.

The current encyclical does not address the population issue, a sensitive one for the Church. It is possible for the Church to address population concerns without shaming large families or advocating limits on family size; simply supporting reproductive self-determination could have significant effects. If Pope Francis can find a way of shifting Church policy on reproductive choice without introducing new forms of coercion or paternalism, he may one day be remembered not just as a leader of the world’s Catholics, but as the global environmental prophet who helped shift thinking about humans’ place on the earth that sustains us.

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