The Environmentalist Pope Issues a Warning

Pope Francis again laments the alleged environmental consequences of capitalism.

In anticipation of the U.N. Climate Action Summit which will be held in New York later this month, Pope Francis has released a written message stating that this is “a season to reflect on our lifestyles,” to become fully aware of how people “act like tyrants with regards to creation,” and to take “prophetic actions” to save the planet. “Now is the time to abandon our dependence on fossil fuels and move, quickly and decisively, towards forms of clean energy and a sustainable and circular economy,” writes the pope. “Let us also learn to listen to indigenous peoples, whose age-old wisdom can teach us how to live in a better relationship with the environment.... We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.”

The pope's message is merely the latest in his long line of public pronouncements regarding manmade climate change and its purported relationship to the evils of capitalism.

In June 2015, for instance, Francis released the first-ever papal encyclical devoted entirely to environmental issues. Lamenting that industrial pollution was causing great damage to “our oppressed and devastated earth,” he claimed that “plenty of scientific studies” had already attributed “the bulk of global warming” to “the great concentration of greenhouse gases” generated by “human action.” “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us,” wrote Francis. As a remedy, the pope proposed an increased reliance on “renewable energy sources” such as wind and solar: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Moreover, he exhorted the wealthy to take “urgent action” to “change [their] lifestyles” and their reckless “consumption” patterns.

The pope’s encyclical also framed environmental concerns as legitimate justifications for a massive, compensatory redistribution of wealth from prosperous, industrialized countries to poorer ones: “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

In a February 17, 2017 speech, Francis warned that “the ecological crisis” caused by anthropogenic climate change “is real,” and that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” Claiming that catastrophe could result if “we deny science and disregard the voice of Nature,” he said: “Let us not fall into denial. Time is running out. Let us act. I ask you again—all of you, people of all backgrounds including native people, pastors, political leaders—to defend Creation.” The root of the problem, the pope added, was “a social and political process that flourishes in many parts of the world and poses a grave danger for humanity”—a reference to capitalism and industrialization.

In September 2017, in the immediate aftermath of four hurricanes that had formed in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico regions, reporters asked Pope Francis about climate change and the role it may have played in the development of those storms. He replied, “Those who deny this must go to the scientists and ask them. They speak very clearly.” Asserting that politicians as well as ordinary citizens had a “moral responsibility” to do whatever they could to reduce the impacts of climate change, the pope added: “These aren’t opinions pulled out of thin air. They are very clear. Then they [political leaders] decide, and history will judge those decisions.”

The pope's views on environmentalism grow out of his deeply held belief that capitalism is not merely a moral abomination, but is also inherently destructive to the earth's air and water. Indeed, in the first major document of his papacy—a 67-page Apostilic Exhortation titled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he characterized capitalism as an economic system where “exclusion and inequality” are ubiquitous; “where the powerful feed upon the powerless”; where “idolotry” that worships “the god of money” leads inevitably to “the greedy exploitation of environmental resources”; and where it is customary to “plunder nature [in order] to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption” and “unbridled consumerism” that is “inherent” in free-market systems.

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Photo by Benhur Arcayan at Wikimedia Commons

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