Pope Francis on Wednesday implored the world to protect the “suffering” planet, lamenting that scant progress had been made in the eight years since he refocused the Roman Catholic Church more fully on environmental issues in a landmark and widely praised treatise.
“With the passage of time, 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,” Francis wrote in an update to his groundbreaking “Laudato Si’ — On Care for our Common Home” encyclical letter.
Addressed to “all people of good will on the climate crisis,” Francis’s 13-page apostolic exhortation, titled “Laudato Deum” or Praise to God, was issued a month after the United Nations’ first official report card on the global climate treaty showed that countries have made only limited progress in staving off the most dangerous effects of global warming.
Francis’ own review is a mix of status report, advocacy agenda, anti-corporate lament, spiritual meditation and appeal for a new multilateral world order with more power to protect the environment.
But it is also a tacit acknowledgment that Francis’ initial call to save the planet has gone largely unheeded as his influence on the world stage, which seemed so significant at the beginning of his pontificate, has been buffeted by the prevailing winds of international politics, macroeconomic pressures and even human nature.
Despite Francis’ efforts to add his voice to matters of global importance, his power is most felt within his own church, which on Wednesday began a major assembly of global bishops and lay people to take on sensitive topics such as priestly celibacy, but also how local churches can safeguard the environment.
Organizers of the assembly, called the Synod of Synodality, said they would make a “contribution to the conservation of creation by choices that will offset the residual CO2 emissions produced” during the event.
The church will sell carbon credits to provide “efficient cooking stoves and water purification technologies” to households, communities and institutions in Nigeria and Kenya.
That is a far cry from the clamor that surrounded Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter on the environment.
The impact of Laudato Si’ resonated well beyond the Catholic world, intensified by lobbying efforts from Francis and the Vatican to persuade governments — both at a national and local level — to put in place effective climate policies.
In 2015, at the United Nations Paris Climate Conference, often referred to as COP21, at least 10 world leaders made specific references to the papal encyclical during their addresses, and the meeting ended with a landmark agreement to fight climate change.
In the ensuing years, the Vatican hosted conferences with dozens of mayors from around the world pledging to combat global warming and help the poor deal with its effects,hosted religious leaders, and gathered money managers and titans of the world’s biggest oil companies to call on them to adjust their business practices.
Francis has pleaded his case to Congress, to other United Nations gatherings, made papal trips to countries that are especially vulnerable to climate issues, and often spoke about the issue during audiences to the faithful who came to the Vatican.
He presented President Donald Trump with a copy of Laudato Si’ during their first meeting in 2017, but Mr. Trump subsequently pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. President Biden recommitted to the pact in 2021.
“The encyclical had a transversal and very profound impact,” both within and outside the Catholic Church, said Paolo Conversi, the coordinator of the Laudato Si Observatory, an interdisciplinary group at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
But as Wednesday’s new document made clear, Francis still feels his message had not been heard.
“Because the situation is now even more pressing, I have wished to share these pages with you,” Francis wrote. He went on to express regret that global crises, such as the financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid pandemic, were “squandered” opportunities for change, and he challenged a blind faith in transformative solutions coming from technical interventions as “a form of homicidal pragmatism, like pushing a snowball down a hill.”
“Once and for all, let us put an end to the irresponsible derision that would present this issue as something purely ecological, “green,” romantic, frequently subject to ridicule by economic interests,” Francis writes.
As in Laudato Si’, Francis, the first Pope from the global south who has a clearly jaundiced eye toward American corporate and colonial interests, describes big business and the “elites of power” in his updated document as a corrupting, and environmentally devastating, force.
“The ethical decadence of real power is disguised thanks to marketing and false information, useful tools in the hands of those with greater resources to employ them to shape public opinion,” Francis wrote.
He noted that “emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries.” He also asserted that a “broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”
He expressed frustration that large multinational organizations have failed to make enough of a dent in the problem, and envisioned new institutions more susceptible to pressure from grass-roots activists to act on the climate crisis.
“More than saving the old multilateralism, it appears that the current challenge is to reconfigure and recreate it,” he wrote.
How Francis would do that, or what such a body would look like, is unclear, but what comes across clearly is the pope’s disdain for climate change deniers.
He scorned the “dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church” and others who “have chosen to deride” facts and whoinstead “bring up allegedly solid scientific data.”
“We are presently experiencing is an unusual acceleration of warming, at such a speed that it will take only one generation — not centuries or millennia — in order to verify it,” he wrote. “Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident.”
He cited the increase in extreme weather, unusual heat and droughts that havedisproportionately affected the poor, who Francis says, are unfairly blamed for having large families: “How can we forget that Africa, home to more than half of the world’s poorest people, is responsible for a minimal portion of historic emissions?”
The pope’s document landed ahead of the next round of United Nations-sponsored climate talks —known as COP28 — which will take place in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, amid a backdrop of resurgent fossil fuel investments.
“People are not responding at the level of urgency that is needed, “including the church itself,” Tomás Insua, co-founder and executive director of the Laudato Si’ Movement, which includes hundreds of organizations inspired by the 2015 encyclical to bring its teachings to life. “Laudate Deum,” he said, was “yet another boost.”
In his new document, Francis clearly hopes so.
“What is being asked of us is nothing other than a certain responsibility for the legacy we will leave behind,” Francis wrote, “once we pass from this world.”