The pope’s warning to a warming world

Pope Francis
Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

By David Gelles In 2015

Pope Francis offered a sprawling meditation on man’s place on Earth and the spiritual implications of human-caused global warming. Eight years later, he appears to have little patience for such ruminations.

In an updated environmental treatise published this week, the pope names and shames the countries and industries he sees as bad actors and makes an urgent plea for collective action.

“With the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” he writes in “Laudate Deum,” which was issued at the start of a major gathering of bishops and lay people at the Vatican.

He specifically takes aim at citizens of richer countries and the “irresponsible lifestyle” of the developed world.

“If we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”

Although the new work is slender compared to “Laudato Si’,” his encyclical on the environment, it offers a comprehensive overview of climate science, the energy transition and the global political landscape.

In clear, precise language, the pope identifies the burning of fossil fuels as the primary driver of climate change, details the effect on the planet and people, dismisses those who deny the crisis, and accuses wealthy individuals, corporations and countries of selfishly turning a blind eye.

“The United Arab Emirates will host the next Conference of the Parties (COP28). It is a country of the Persian Gulf known as a great exporter of fossil fuels, although it has made significant investments in renewable energy sources,” the pope writes. “Meanwhile, gas and oil companies are planning new projects there, with the aim of further increasing their production.”

Celia Deane-Drummond, a theologian and director of the Laudato Si’ research institute at the University of Oxford, said it was a remarkable document, capturing the pope’s urgent sense of concern in the face of a tepid global response.

“He’s quite exasperated by what hasn’t happened,” she said. “This is kind of one last attempt to shake people up.”

‘A silent disease’

Zeke Hausfather, a prominent climate scientist, called this summer’s worldwide heat wave “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas.” The past year has been marked by extreme weather around the globe, from wildfires in Canada and Europe to deluges in Libya and China.

The pope has clearly been paying attention. He writes that the natural disasters are just “a few palpable expressions of a silent disease that affects everyone,” while lamenting the loss of biodiversity and the rising economic toll of climate change.

The pope also included details that reveal a sophisticated understanding of some of the nuances of climate science.

He talks about the rising concentration of greenhouse gas parts per million in the atmosphere, noting that the data has been confirmed by “the Mauna Loa observatory, which has taken daily measurements of carbon dioxide since 1958.”

He mentions feedback loops such as “the reduction of ice sheets, changes in ocean currents, deforestation in tropical rainforests and the melting of permafrost in Russia.”

And he expressed doubt that technological remedies alone would be enough to combat climate change if the world doesn’t stop burning fossil fuels.

“To suppose that all problems in the future will be able to be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism,” he writes, “like pushing a snowball down a hill.”

Naming names

The new treatise goes beyond simply taking stock of current events. The pope calls out those he says are to blame. As he did earlier this year, Pope Francis calls for the abandonment of fossil fuels. And he acknowledges that major corporations are unlikely to change out of the goodness of their hearts.

“Regrettably, the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time,” he writes.

He gives a withering critique of the failure of the United Nations climate change conferences, and says this year’s summit will only be successful if it results in “binding forms of energy transition that meet three conditions: that they be efficient, obligatory and readily monitored.”

The pope, who has battled with conservative critics within the church, also calls out climate deniers, citing the “dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”

In total, it was an altogether different sort of papal rhetoric — equal parts exasperated, accusatory and prescriptive.

“He’s very practical and he’s very pointed,” Dr. Deane-Drummond said. “I think that he’s gotten tired of speaking in generalities.”

“The proposed order is inconsistent with existing rights,” said Robert Donlan, an attorney for the company. “The board simply has no authority to ignore the law.”

But the board disagreed and said the order upholds state law.

“The reality is that you see the interception of what is otherwise water that would be naturally flowing,” said board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel. “This order not only protects these resources but helps maintain faith in the larger water rights system.”

Local environmentalists have argued the company’s pipeline removes precious water that would otherwise flow in Strawberry Creek and nourish the ecosystem. The system of 4-inch steel pipes collects water that flows with gravity from various sites on the steep mountainside above the creek.

“It’s sick. They sucked it dry and now fish can’t even live there,” said Amanda Frye, an activist who campaigned for years against the water-bottling. Frye, who lives in Redlands, spent long hours combing through historical archives researching the case, and repeatedly told the board the company lacked valid water rights.

Records show about 143 acre-feet (46.5 million gallons) flowed through the company’s network of pipes in 2021, filling a roadside tank where trucks pick up water and haul it to a bottling plant.

State officials ordered the company to immediately stop taking water for bottling from most of its water-collection tunnels and boreholes at 10 sites, but the order doesn’t cover three other boreholes that capture water.