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Ricardo da Silva, S.J.October 06, 2023
Pope Francis leads a prayer as he begins his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 20, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez).

“Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis’ surprisingly brief but impassioned apostolic exhortation, is his most despairing yet. Words like “hopelessness,” “desperation,” “pessimism,” “direct attack” and “alarm” are not words most would use to describe anything said by this pope. He is typically known for his encouragement and hope-filled messages. But “Laudate Deum” has an uncharacteristic tone and hits hard.

It is a devastating account of the present state of human action on climate change on the global level, and highlights how we are failing on almost every benchmark. Notably, Pope Francis takes direct aim at the “irresponsible lifestyle” of many in the United States, noting 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” (No. 72).

In "Laudate Deum," Pope Francis takes direct aim at the “irresponsible lifestyle” of many in the United States.

That specific mention might shock Americans unaccustomed to hearing Pope Francis address anyone in this manner; his frustration is palpable. In 11 brief pages, he specifically targets the world’s most powerful nations and leaders: “To the powerful, I can only repeat this question: ‘What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power, only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?’” (No. 60). “With the passage of time,” the pope reflects in his introduction, “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” (No. 2).

The pope is sharp and critical; he pulls no punches, instead delivering every blow he can muster to shake humankind into a reckoning. He repeatedly reminds us we are already too late to respond adequately to the climate crisis. “Some effects of the climate crisis are already irreversible, at least for several hundred years,” he writes, drawing our attention toward “the increase in the global temperature of the oceans” as just one example of climate degradation wrought by our human hands. “This is one of the many signs that the other creatures of this world have stopped being our companions along the way and have become instead our victims” (No. 15).

Pope Francis then proceeds to illustrate the gravity of the global climate crisis with concrete examples, scientific explanations and detailed statistics. “Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident,” he says, and those signs cannot be ignored. “Admittedly, not every concrete catastrophe ought to be attributed to global climate change. Nonetheless, it is verifiable that specific climate changes provoked by humanity are notably heightening the probability of extreme phenomena that are increasingly frequent and intense” (No. 5).

The pope underscores numerous extreme weather events as unmistakable signs of a planet in distress. A 0.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperature has already resulted in significant rises in floods, rains, droughts, heatwaves, and snowfall. As we approach a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase, these events will become even more frequent and intense. Beyond a 2 degrees Celsius increase, “the icecaps of Greenland and a large part of Antarctica will melt completely, with immensely grave consequences for everyone,” he warns (No. 5). Coupled with the unprecedented rises in sea levels, this means that “probably in a few years many populations will have to move their homes” (No. 6). These factors will only exacerbate the already critical state of the global migration crisis.

Pope Francis: “It is no longer possible to doubt the human—‘anthropic’—origin of climate change."

“It is no longer possible to doubt the human—‘anthropic’—origin of climate change” (No. 11), Pope Francis asserts, pointing to data that show this truth. “In the last fifty years the temperature has risen at an unprecedented speed, greater than any time over the past two thousand years,” he reports. “More than 42% of total net [carbon dioxide emissions] since the year 1850 were produced after 1990” (No. 12).

Pope Francis has been criticized for assuming the role of a climate scientist, a fact to which he sarcastically alludes: “The overwhelming majority of scientists specializing in the climate support this correlation, and only a very small percentage of them seek to deny the evidence,” he says. “I feel obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church” (No. 14). It also does not escape the pope’s mention that “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” (No. 13).

Sections two through five of “Laudate Deum” see Pope Francis make interdisciplinary jumps into philosophy, the social and political sciences and international relations. It is not until the final section that he offers a more theological and spiritual take.

The second section expands on a concept the pope initially addressed in his influential 2015 encyclical on care for the environment, “Laudato Si’,” and in subsequent reflections throughout his papacy. This concept, referred to as “the technocratic paradigm,” entails a critical examination of a particular perspective on human progress that, as the pope notes, “proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology” (No. 20).

The technocratic paradigm is based on the flawed thinking that “reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such” (No. 20), Pope Francis writes, noting his special concern that “artificial intelligence and the latest technological innovations start with the notion of a human being with no limits, whose abilities and possibilities can be infinitely expanded thanks to technology” (No. 21).

For the pope, the problem is not with the technological advances themselves, but with the human thinking that “everything that exists ceases to be a gift for which we should be thankful, esteem and cherish, and instead becomes a slave, prey to any whim of the human mind and its capacities” (No. 22). In this context the pope calls us “to rethink among other things the question of human power, its meaning and its limits,” he says. “We have made impressive and awesome technological advances, and we have not realized that at the same time we have turned into highly dangerous beings, capable of threatening the lives of many beings and our own survival” (No. 28).

Pope Francis: "The most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international level."

The third, fourth and fifth sections offer strong critiques of the global superpowers and existing mechanisms for international cooperation. Pope Francis notes “the weakness of international politics” and assesses the efforts made by these entities in response to the climate crisis, specifically in attempts to fully implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which began in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and has brought representatives from over 190 countries to meetings around the world since.

At the heart of these sections is his criticism of multilateralism as it is currently understood among nations and their leaders. “It is not helpful to confuse multilateralism with a world authority concentrated in one person or in an elite with excessive power,” he writes. “We are speaking above all of ‘more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defense of fundamental human rights’” (No. 35). It may not be helpful, he writes, “for us to support institutions in order to preserve the rights of the more powerful without caring for those of all” (No. 43).

The fourth section reviews the work of the U.N. climate conferences since Rio. The pope notes some significant failures and progresses along the way, naming the success of the Kyoto Protocol, where nations committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent, and the 2015 COP21 in Paris which committed to keep the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. But, he writes, “the accords have been poorly implemented, due to lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of noncompliance. The principles which they proclaimed still await an efficient and flexible means of practical implementation” (No. 52).

The first signs of hope in “Laudate Deum” come only in the fifth section, as Pope Francis looks to the future of international negotiations on climate change. “To say that there is nothing to hope for would be suicidal, for it would mean exposing all humanity, especially the poorest, to the worst impacts of climate change” (No. 53), the pope writes. “Once and for all, let us put an end to the irresponsible derision that would present this issue as something purely ecological, ‘green,’ romantic, frequently subject to ridicule by economic interests. Let us finally admit that it is a human and social problem on any number of levels” (No. 58). Finally, “one can only hope for binding forms of energy transition that meet three conditions: that they be efficient, obligatory and readily monitored” (No. 59).

In his concluding paragraphs, the pope’s change in tone rescues the reader from utter despair and offers a last-minute boost of hope. “We know that authentic faith not only gives strength to the human heart, but also transforms life, transfigures our goals and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole” (No. 61), he writes, before making a final ardent plea:

I ask everyone to accompany this pilgrimage of reconciliation with the world that is our home and to help make it more beautiful, because that commitment has to do with our personal dignity and highest values. At the same time, I cannot deny that it is necessary to be honest and recognize that the most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international level (No. 69).

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