- In his October 4 papal declaration, Pope Francis called unequivocally for climate action in the face of a disastrously warming world.
- The pope’s message comes at a decisive time, as world leaders prepare to meet for the COP28 summit, in a United Nations climate process that many critics say is broken and has largely stalled since the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.
- The pope’s call for action also comes at a time when the world’s faith-based climate movement — which was greatly energized by Paris, and which has had some notable successes since then — is struggling.
- Mongabay spoke with faith leaders, theologians and policymakers to assess the challenges that Francis’ message presents, and whether it can reinvigorate global religious leaders and spur the grassroots faithful to political and social action on the environment. Reportedly, Francis may travel to COP28 to press his message in person.
Pope Francis pulled no punches in his latest papal proclamation, calling out world leaders — who for decades have failed to protect the planet and its most vulnerable people — and spurring the world’s most powerful to take decisive action on climate change.
The timing isn’t coincidental; those leaders will meet Nov. 30 for the 28th U.N. climate summit, which some are calling a “do-or-die moment” and a “” for the U.N. negotiating process to make deep, rapid and sustained cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the world’s headlong rush into a far hotter, far more dangerous future.
“Our responses have not been adequate,” Francis wrote in Laudate Deum, published Oct. 4. As a result, he warned, “The impact of climate change will increasingly prejudice the lives and families of many. … We will feel its effects in … healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations.”
He lambasted, too, the capitalistic appeal of unproven technology — easy fixes to the climate crisis — that fail to address the hard work of phasing out fossil fuels and ending global deforestation: “To suppose that all problems in the future will be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism,” he wrote bluntly.
And to those about to gather in the United Arab Emirates (a petrostate) for COP28, the Conference of the Parties conference, which this year is being led by a Middle Eastern oil company head, the pope warned: “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?’”
The pope’s harsh assessment in Laudate Deum comes eight years after Laudato Si’, an inspirational and influential document that seized the world’s attention and helped shape the final language of 2015’s landmark Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately for the Earth and humanity, that shining moment of hope in Paris — embraced by Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist leaders, which inspired a surge in faith-based grassroots climate action around the globe — has been followed by nearly a decade of fading prospects.
Religious activism fizzled in country after country as the disheartened faithful watched U.N. climate summit failure after failure in Marrakesh, Bonn, Katowice, Madrid, Glasgow and Sharm El Sheikh; as national leaders were condemned for their “litany of broken climate promises”; as corporations hyped false climate claims to hide and greenwash their emissions.
In a range of interviews by Mongabay with faith leaders, policymakers and theologians, all said they agree the pope is putting his moral authority on the line, again, to prod reluctant COP28 negotiators and to reignite a global faith-based movement in defense of what Francis calls “our common home.” There are reports from inside the Vatican that he even plans to attend the summit in Dubai.
But those experts wonder if Francis retains the persuasive power to inspire action anew in a world far more politically and religiously polarized today than eight years ago.
What religious leaders fear
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an early pioneer in religious environmental activism, won’t make a forecast. But he is emphatic in saying that the urgent message of Laudate Deum is the right one at the right time.
“Most religious organizations and leaders, with few exceptions, are not doing enough,” said Harper, an Episcopal pastor and executive director of New York City-based GreenFaith, a religious climate-action group with chapters worldwide.
“Once-a-year sermons are not enough. Building gardens behind your church or temple or mosque are not enough. We need people willing to stand up to governments and major financial institutions and say: ‘You are destroying the planet. And you have to stop.’”
Harper, though, has been on the scene long enough to understand the reluctance of faith leaders to speak out boldly like Francis is doing now.
“Way too much religious language about climate change fails to [offer strong criticisms] because of a fear by religious leaders that if they speak to those issues, they will become unpopular within their faith communities,” he said.
“Other religious leaders may not agree that this is the kind of action that’s needed. But there’s no question that it is.”
Lost momentum and faith in action
Harper was in Paris in 2015 and he witnessed the spirit of moral clarity, commitment and mission that emerged from the summit as 196 nations agreed to collectively and voluntarily hold global temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above a 1900 baseline.
But while GreenFaith over the years has added new grassroots chapters across Europe, Africa and Asia to lobby and protest, Harper has also witnessed his, and other, religious sects, losing focus and drifting off to other priorities.
Momentum has been lost, experts agreed in their interviews with Mongabay. In fact, in some cases, religion has thwarted climate action. The rise to dominance of populist religious sects, for example, in the United States and Brazil has contributed votes to climate change deniers like presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
But pope-inspired pockets of effective climate action continue today, and energized congregants could have even greater influence through planetwide action: After all, faith-based organizations own about 8% of habitable land (510 million hectares, or 1.3 billion acres) and about 5% of commercial forests. Collectively, they hold enormous financial clout, strength in pure numbers of congregants and when organized, have the potential to change the world, according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute.
GreenFaith offers an example. Its relentless protests and lobbying in Uganda and Tanzania helped lead to Japanese financing being recently pulled from the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), a controversial 1,443-kilometer (896-mile) crude-oil conduit slated to cross those two nations.
So, too, the U.N. Environmental Programme’s Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI). In Brazil, Peru, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, IRI organizes religious and secular allies to push for laws that protect biodiverse rainforests and Indigenous rights.
“IRI was born under the inspiration and the call of Pope Francis in 2015 [through] Laudato Si’,” Carlos Vincente, coordinator of IRI in Brazil, told Mongabay. “We continue to engage in action and initiatives to preserve and restore nature and also to choose governments and companies committed to these values.”
In a real sense, the narrow electoral victory in Brazil by Luiz Inácio da Silva over Jair Bolsonaro in 2022 can be credited to the shifting views and votes of religious sects. Lula, who supports Amazon conservation, Indigenous rights and climate action, was well backed last year by Catholic and Christian evangelical voters with strong environmental and social justice values. Bolsonaro, who during his time as president attacked the environment and Indigenous people, failed to rally conservative evangelical followers who helped sweep him to victory in 2018.
That leadership change in Brazil has already led to a decline in Amazonian deforestation and the historic creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, headed by Indigenous activist Sonia Guajajara. Lula also gave COP27 a boost when he showed up there in 2022 and promised to make climate action the highest priority of his administration.
Vicente said his group is now actively working “in cooperation with a network of religious entities, environmental NGOs, scientific organization and entities representing Indigenous peoples” to lobby President Lula and Congress to pass environmental protection laws. IRI’s coordination also led this year to the Brazilian Supreme Court overturning a Bolsonaro policy that limited the right to create new Indigenous lands in the Amazon, Vicente said.
Blanca Lucía Echeverry, coordinator of IRI in Colombia, told Mongabay that she will put Laudate Deum to immediate use among a host of religious groups aligned to protect the country’s biodiverse tropical forests by lobbying for government protections and regulations.
“This is an interreligious dialogue that brings us together around what we have in common,” Echeverry said, “recognizing that all churches share the belief that protecting nature is a divine mandate that imposes on us an ethical and spiritual obligation to act to preserve and restore creation.”
Papal influence in Peru
Laura Vargas, coordinator IRI in Peru, noted that climate action has been difficult in her country, largely due to governmental dysfunction in Lima — the nation has had five presidents in five years. But she, too, listed some hard-earned wins.
In 2022, the Peruvian Congress, known for its corruption, proposed a law to convert more Amazonian jungle to agriculture, which would have resulted in vast deforestation that would have displaced “several of our communities [now living] in voluntary isolation.”
IRI joined with leading Indigenous associations and the bishops of five Amazonian departments to press Peru’s Congress via lobbying and petitions to abandon the law. It did. “Maybe at some point in the future someone will try again to pass this law,” Vargas told Mongabay, “but at the moment, it’s been stopped.” She also described, what in her view was a Catholic church in Peru more united behind Pope Francis’ environmental priorities than eight years ago when Laudato Si’ was released.
However, there are limits to this faith-based influence, Vargas said. Widespread illegal gold mining continues to destroy Peru’s forests and ecosystems.
“IRI is active throughout the whole Amazon region,” she said. “The bishops are united. The NGOs are with us, too. The reality is, the mining problem is so big that without government support, no one organization, even the church backed by the pope, can do enough.”
That battle in the Peruvian Amazon — fighting shortsighted economic gain over the preservation of divine creation — is the challenge faith-based groups say they face globally.
For U.S. Catholics: ‘Climate change as a culture war’
When it comes to the United States, Pope Francis has long been at odds with much of the conservative Catholic hierarchy. Perhaps that’s partly why in Laudate Deum, he singles out the U.S. as the world’s largest polluter per capita. The pope writes that “a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact [on climate action].”
Francis’ often-stated abhorrence of throw-away consumerism and unchecked capitalism has rankled affluent conservative congregants in many U.S. parishes. This, in turn, has muted priests’ sermons on climate requiring conservation, personal sacrifice and action.
“On the parish level, the successful framing of climate change as a culture war issue makes it difficult for Francis’ message to be heard in the U.S.,” said Vince Miller, a professor of theology and culture at the University of Dayton. “Pastors often courageously speak out for marginalized members of their parish communities, but climate change does not appear as a face in their congregations.”
Nor does it get much attention from conservative U.S. bishops, with few showing support for the pope’s October 4 climate proclamation, and most simply ignoring it.
David Cloutier, a professor of Catholic social ethics and social thought at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said, “The church opinion about the Francis papacy is as polarized as anything I’ve seen in my 50-year lifetime,” a result of his willingness to discuss [controversial topics such as] gay marriage, priest celibacy, ordaining women and demanding global climate action.
Cloutier stressed that Francis, when he speaks on the environment, isn’t saying anything “even remotely theologically controversial.” But socially and politically, he said, the pope knows he is taking on powerful forces, which has caused some religious and political leaders to challenge his moral authority.
“The framing of [Laudate Deum],” Cloutier said, “is focused on the idea that unlimited growth, unlimited use of resources, unlimited carbon dumping and any kind of refusal of limits on the human enterprise is at the heart of the environmental crisis.”
This is the “irresponsible lifestyle” to which the pope refers; it is not always a winning message among the rich and powerful, especially in the United States.
The pope, morality and COP28
With the timing of Laudate Deum, Pope Francis clearly hopes to influence the outcome of COP28, as he did with COP21 in Paris. The question remains: Can he?
Harper of GreenFaith said he hoped Francis’ courageous message would at least embolden faith leaders who attend the summit. The UAE has paid $300,000 to create a “faith pavilion” at the meeting where religious leaders can gather for public discussions. Harper said he plans to attend and be heard.
“I am calling on that pavilion to take the position that the only acceptable religious call to action around negotiations is an immediate end of new fossil fuel development,” Harper said. “And an immediate funding of the loss-and-damage fund [for poor climate-impacted countries] that was created a year ago. If we don’t do those things, we should not be in that space.”
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, with World Wildlife Fund, said he is hoping Pope Francis’ latest message influences COP28 as well. Pulgar-Vidal, Peru’s former minister of the environment, and a devout Catholic, was a host in the 2014 COP20 in Lima, where the Paris Agreement was drafted. In Abu Dhabi, he is on the advisory committee to the COP28 president.
“The pope is saying something that is extremely important,” said Pulgar-Vidal. “The political process is not working. The energy transition must be more effective, and it must be more mandatory, just as Francis says. He is the only single entity bringing a moral approach to this debate. We [policymakers] are missing the ethical and moral aspects in our discussions. I believe this is a good contribution to this missing piece of the process.”
Pope Francis would surely agree, writing: “I cannot fail … to remind the Catholic faithful of the motivations born of their faith. I encourage my brothers and sisters of other religions to do the same. … Authentic faith not only gives strength to the human heart, but also transforms life, transfigures goals and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole.”
Banner image: Pope Francis has inspired people the world over. Image by Mazur/Catholic Church England and Wales via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He covered seven UN climate summits between 2014 and 2021.
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