Is Pope Francis the world’s new climate champion?

Pope Francis. Photo credit: Korean Culture and Information Service.
By guest contributor Malee Oot
Since being elected to the position of Supreme Pontiff in March, 2013, Argentine-born Pope Francis has shaken things up in the Vatican—to say the least. Long recognized as a champion of the poor, during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires the pontiff was known for taking public buses to work and preparing his own meals. Now the pope is setting his sights on another glaring global injustice: climate change.
Pope Francis is in the midst of preparing an encyclical on the environment, specifically on humankind’s devastating ecological impact, according to Reverend Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Vatican.
The pontiff is expected to complete the text in time to attempt to sway the next global meeting of nations party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December, according to The Guardian.
The encyclical is also hoped to encourage the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to similarly take action on climate—and may even serve to dispel the notion that science and religion are mutually exclusive.
Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to take on the climate issue. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, hardly remembered as socially progressive, was also a vocal advocate for mitigating the impacts of global climate change. In 2011, just before U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, the pontiff shared his desire that ‘all members of the international community might reach an agreement on a responsible, credible, response’ to the mounting climate crisis, referring to the issue of climate change as both ‘complex’ and ‘disturbing,’ according to Vatican Radio. It was also during Benedict’s tenure as pope that the Vatican announced plans to generate 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
The forthcoming encyclical is not the only item on the pope’s climate agenda for 2015. Later this month the pontiff will visit the Philippine city of Tacloban, in Leyte province, a region devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, where he plans to speak with survivors of the disaster. And in September he plans to visit the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, hoping to influence global environmental and anti-poverty goals for 2015.
During 2014, the issue of climate change was hardly ignored by the Vatican. In May, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences hosted a 5-day international workshop exploring strategies for Catholic leadership to better integrate concerns about sustainability. And just this past October, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See permanent observer at the United Nations spoke before the General Assembly to highlight the moral injustice of climate change, “While the impact of climate change is felt globally, developed and technologically advanced countries have greater capacity to adapt and mitigate the adverse effects, whereas developing and poor nations remain particularly vulnerable.”
And the pope is right: climate change is a moral issue. People living in the margins, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence have contributed virtually nothing to global greenhouse gas emissions when compared to input from industrialized nations, yet these populations are experiencing the most profound challenges to adaptation and bearing the brunt of the devastation brought by rising temperatures. By advocating for greater action on climate, Pope Francis continues to be one of the most vocal global advocates for the poor.
This was first published at Fairfax Climate Watch.
Malee is a freelance writer with a background in environmental management. She has lived in Kenya, Nepal, Thailand, and the United Kingdom and is currently based in Washington, DC.
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