Global wildlife populations have fallen an average of 58 percent from 1970 levels, with human activity substantially reducing the numbers of elephants in Tanzania, maned wolves in Brazil, salamanders in the United States and orcas in the waters of Europe, among many other animal species. That’s the assessment recorded in the Living Planet report released on Oct. 27 by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London.
Researchers say deforestation, pollution, overfishing and the illegal wildlife trade, together with climate change, "are pushing species populations to the edge.”
"For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife," said Mike Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK. "We ignore the decline of other species at our peril—for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us."
Living Planet predicts that by 2020, populations of vertebrate species could fall by 67 percent from 1970 levels unless action is taken to reverse the damaging impacts of human activity.
Many environmentally conscious Catholics may have hoped that the marching orders on care of creation issued by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” may have had some effect by now on changing hearts that will in turn lead to changing habits—encouraging proactive human activity that may help diminish or even reverse the trends depicted in the Living Planet report. But a Francis effect on the environment via “Laudato Si’,” so far remains hard to discern, according to researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The encyclical was warmly embraced by activists on climate change, sustainable development and protecting creation, but according to an Annenberg study released on Oct. 24, “Laudato Si’” did not succeed in raising broad public concern on the issue of climate change.
Researchers found that people who were already concerned about climate change were, perhaps not surprisingly, willing to view the encyclical more generously. Unfortunately the opposite also appeared true.
“While Pope Francis’ environmental call may have increased some individuals’ concerns about climate change, it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the pope’s credibility on climate change,” says lead author Nan Li.
The study, which sought to investigate whether a religious authority could influence public opinion on such a polarizing topic, suggests that the “worldviews, political identities and group norms that lead [politically] conservative Catholics to deny climate change override their deference to religious authority when judging the reality and risks of this phenomenon.” Catholics as a whole, though, were more willing to esteem the pope’s credibility on climate change.
Dan Misleh, the executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, finds the report itself and the timing of its release a bit of a head scratcher. According to Annenberg, the data used in its study was obtained from almost 1,400 20-minute phone interviews conducted one week before the release of “Laudato Si’” on June 18, 2015 and another 1,400 or so interviews two weeks later. Why release that study now when the data is more than a year old, he asks, and why not look at a longer timeframe to determine an impact. Mr. Misleh notes that a Yale study released in November 2015 indeed tracked a significant impact on public attitudes that it attributed to “Laudato Si’.”
He suggests that at the time of Annenberg researchers were making their calls, few lay Catholics, much less people from other denominations, had probably yet found the time to read through the nearly 200-page encyclical. Worse, he adds, the attention of the nation was properly distracted in the timeframe of the phone survey by the horror of the Charleston church massacre.
Mr. Misleh is willing to tell Annenberg all that he knows anecdotally of the many parish- and community-based initiatives that emerged, and continue to, in reaction to “Laudato Si’.”
“There were like 110 statements or press release or articles written by bishops within two weeks after it was released,” Mr. Misleh says. “I don’t think the bishops have ever responded that way to an encyclical letter.”
The Annenberg study may have measured the personal and found the pope’s impact wanting, but it is hard to argue that the pope’s encyclical did not have a political impact on the problem. His message on climate change and care of creation was at the forefront of international policy discussions, within months included at historic speeches before Congress and the United Nations and by December brought a spiritual ethic on climate change into the Paris climate change negotiations that eventually led to a historic compact to confront the problem.
The influence of the encyclical on the mitigation interventions that emerge out of Paris remains to be seen.
Among other suggestions, researchers at Living Planet say one way to reduce the impact of human activity on the planet is simply to reduce the number of humans.
Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’” had anticipated such prescriptions in this era of ecological distress. Demographic growth, the pope wrote, “is fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” the pope wrote. “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate,” he said.
“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues,” he said. “It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”
But while people are not an environmental threat, he argues, overconsumption and waste surely are.
Pope Francis calls for daily acts of conversion against materialism and to avoid extremes of “those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change” and “those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat” (50). Perhaps in finding a path between these two extremes, humankind will yet be able to share the earth with other endangered creatures who are part of God's good creation.