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Climate change encyclical was much more

Pope Francis salutes the faithful gathered outside the hospital Cottolengo of Turin in northern Italy on June 21.
Pope Francis salutes the faithful gathered outside the hospital Cottolengo of Turin in northern Italy on June 21. The Associated Press

When the man born as Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose to be known as Pope Francis, he explained that his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was a “man of poverty,” a “man of peace” and a “man who loves and protects creation.”

With the release of his encyclical, Laudato Si, the pope is followed through on all three counts.

As the encyclical recognizes, climate change is harming the Earth – including humans – and its most devastating effects are likely to fall on the poor and vulnerable.

Lest anyone take comfort in their position of privilege, the encyclical warns that our global interdependence and interconnectedness leave us all at risk.

The encyclical is remarkable in a number of ways.

First, it speaks to all of us. In the Catholic Church, an encyclical is typically a letter to church leaders and laity concerning church doctrine. Pope Francis’ encyclical, however, aims at a much broader audience: “Faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.”

Filled with references to “our common home” and “the whole human family,” the encyclical is a call to all persons – Catholic or Protestant, believer or nonbeliever – to take heed and to act.

The pope has no authority over those of us outside the Catholic Church, of course. But Pope Francis does command respect among many non-Catholics and has the power to persuade.

Significantly, his encyclical makes a powerful case for greater engagement between science and religion. These two forces are frequently framed as hostile to each other.

Yet science and religion often are complementary: Science can express divinely inspired human creativity, and religion can offer explanations and ethical guidance where science cannot.

Moreover, these “distinctive approaches to understanding reality” can suggest alternative solutions to social and environmental challenges. Together, they offer a greater collective wisdom than either might alone.

Second, while the media have referred to the “climate change” encyclical, the document is not just about the environment. It touches on some of humanity’s most intractable problems – not just climate change and water scarcity – but also poverty, global inequity, dehumanization and war.

“Everything is connected,” the encyclical declares. Climate change relates to public health, poverty, food security and global stability. The environment relates to daily life and family and social relations. Less obviously, our attitudes toward material objects carry over to other living things and to the people around us.

The encyclical underscores our ethical obligations to other humans, other living things and future generations. These obligations at times may feel too abstract or diffuse to motivate personal action. The encyclical is a critical reminder we all have a stake in solving climate change. Climate change will be bad for all of us, not just polar bears.

Finally, the encyclical reminds us that solving climate change and other challenges requires more than new laws and policies. Policymakers often grapple with climate change in terms of cap-and-trade systems, low carbon fuel standards and the like.

The encyclical touches on some of these details, urging the establishment of enforceable international agreements while casting doubts on the efficacy of carbon credit trading systems.

Such measures alone, however, may not be enough. At the root of many environmental challenges is a global system of production and consumption that is straining the planet’s waste-absorbing and resource-generating capacities.

That system has produced great wealth – for some – and lifted millions out of poverty. Yet it has also generated vast inequality and environmental degradation.

Here, the encyclical offers no easy answers. It urges cultivation of an ecological citizenship through education efforts. These efforts would aim not only to inform, but also to transform personal and social values. Ideally, they would foster a sense of sufficiency, gratitude and shared responsibility for others and the world.

Such a transformation requires struggle in the face of powerful forces that favor current systems of production and consumption. And even if it does come, the transformation may not be rapid enough to ward off the impacts of climate change.

We have a responsibility to change. We also have a responsibility to demand that our leaders concretely address climate change, as Pope Francis makes so clear.

Albert C. Lin is a law professor at UC Davis School of Law, where he specializes in environmental and natural resources law. His book, “Prometheus Reimagined,” probes the intersection of technology, environment and the law.

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