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Peter KnoxNovember 30, 2023
A climate activist wearing a protective mask protests June 8, 2023, while smoke and haze caused by wildfires in Canada pass through New York City. (OSV News photo/Amr Alfiky, Reuters)

As word circulated in September that Pope Francis was about to release a second teaching document on the environment, speculation was rife that his instruction would essentially be a clone or “Part 2” of his famed encyclical “Laudato Si’.” As it transpired, “Laudate Deum” is not merely a repetition or addendum to “Laudato Si’.” The two teachings are distinct. Each is important in its own right. So, what has changed?

The short answer is that circumstances have changed. “With the passage of time,” Pope Francis writes in the second paragraph of “Laudate Deum,” “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. In addition to this possibility, it is indubitable that the impact of climate change will increasingly prejudice the lives and families of many persons. We will feel its effects in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations, etc.”

In the eight years since the publication of “Laudato Si’,” what has changed is that global climate change has become a climate crisis.

Thus, in the eight years since the publication of “Laudato Si’,” what has changed is that global climate change has become a climate crisis—as the title of the apostolic exhortation indicates.

From encyclicals to calls to action

What has also changed is the genre of communication: “Laudato Si’” was a lengthy, prophetic encyclical, published in 2015. It was the first papal teaching dedicated exclusively to the nexus of the environmental and social crises. As a teaching document, it synthesized Christian tradition with contemporary environmental sciences and social analysis. It proposed that all people on the planet engage in dialogue and become educated on ecological matters, which they incorporate into their spirituality.

“Laudate Deum,” published on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi this year, is a precisely focussed call to action, urging all people of good will to make greater efforts in relation to the climate crisis. Specifically, it anticipates the upcoming Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and urges the participants to make effective, obligatory and easily monitored commitments to transition away from fossil fuels to greener sources of energy.

The exhortation also appeals for increased involvement from civil society to partner with multilateral organizations in holding politicians and businesses accountable to their publicly stated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

From denial to increased awareness and action

Hopefully our attitudes have indeed changed since Pope Francis’ prophetic encyclical. With each new weather-related catastrophe, climate-change denialists are less able to deny the evidence before their eyes. People who previously experienced climate anxiety have probably sunk into depression. On the positive side, the encyclical validated, in Catholic Church teaching, our Christian—human—vocation to care for our common home. Thus it galvanized the earth-loving engagement and spirituality of millions of people around the world, giving ecological activists a new lease of energy and sense of purpose. As we are becoming more aware of and sensitive to the fragile nature of our home, Christians are coming together with people of all faiths and none, in united civil and political campaigns to motivate for greater protection of our planet.

Despite the engaged actions of many, concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to grow, increasing the overall temperature of the Earth and destabilizing global climates.

Ocean acidification is increasing, jeopardizing coral reefs and the nurseries of fisheries. Sea levels are rising, threatening small island nations and coastal settlements around the world. Plastic pollution is ubiquitous. Land usage and habitats are changing irreversibly. Biodiversity loss has placed us in the Sixth Great Extinction.

For millions of people, clean water—a basic human right—is becoming more scarce and less affordable. In many cities, air pollution is making the very act of breathing dangerous. Floods, wildfires and droughts are becoming so common that insurance companies are hesitant to insure against them. Geoscientists warn that Earth is approaching tipping points beyond which the planet will no longer be habitable for humankind. Most of these changes are directly caused by rapacious human activity. Our imprint on the planet is so heavy that our age is called “the Anthropocene”—a geological era shaped by human activity.

A gap between knowledge and behavior

Never before have people had so much information about the harmful effects of our activity. Yet our destruction of the natural systems that support us is worsening by the year. What can explain this gap between our knowledge and our behavior? 

In “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis notes the lack of connection between personal, family and community efforts to reduce consumption, wastage and pollution and what is happening (or rather not happening) with the political sector and “the powerful” (No. 71). He believes that relevant cultural changes are taking place from below, and that these will bring about larger processes of transformation.

As people consume locally produced goods, waste less and abandon the creed of “work more, earn more, consume more,” our aspirations change.

As people consume locally produced goods, waste less and abandon the creed of “work more, earn more, consume more,” our aspirations change. We stop comparing ourselves with the Joneses next door, and de-link our personal identity and worth from the “stuff” we own and subsequently discard. We learn to go against the grain of consumerism, take responsibility for the whole lifecycle, including the hidden environmental costs of the goods we purchase, and begin to make sacrifices on behalf of Mother Earth. When citizens live within the ability of the planet to sustain them, then their countries’ economies begin to adjust to the changed consumer behaviors.

COP28: A call for “nobility” in global politics

The COP participants will ideally be “strategists capable of considering the common good and the future of their children, more than the short-term interests of certain countries or businesses. In this way,” the pope adds, “they demonstrate the nobility of politics and not its shame” (No. 60). They will have to address issues around food security and agricultural sustainability, finance for climate change damage, mitigation and adaptation, just-energy transitions, climate-related biodiversity loss, the first global stocktaking of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The pope is highly optimistic that the upcoming COP28 will see a realignment of personal, domestic and large-scale efforts to redeem the planet from the “evil” of the climate crisis.

The pope is highly optimistic that the upcoming COP28 will see a realignment of personal, domestic and large-scale efforts to redeem the planet from the “evil” of the climate crisis.

The COP will take place from Nov. 30  to Dec. 12, 2023. in the United Arab Emirates. Although the country is a historical exporter of fossil fuels, the U.A.E. has also made significant investments in alternative sources of energy. Pope Francis hopes that the decision makers at the COP will commit to ambitious and binding pathways of energy transition. This will require humanity, and particularly the political and business sectors, to transcend parochial interests and to be sufficiently motivated to avert a precipitous decline toward global critical points.

The much-anticipated and unprecedented presence of Pope Francis at a COP will unfortunately not take place this year, as the pontiff has been advised by his doctors that he should not travel owing to present illness. So, the head of state of the Holy See will not be lending moral authority and leadership to the proceedings.

Pope Francis’ absence, however, should not permit participants to lose their focus on the task at hand, or allow them to be derailed by side-shows (in this context) of the bitter armed conflicts taking place in the world, as so frequently happens at gatherings of the United Nations. It is his ardent and persistent desire, reiterated in “Laudato Si’” (No. 57) and “Laudate Deum” (No. 60), that participants should not “be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so.”

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