Rarely has a papal encyclical caused so much buzz outside of the Catholic community. But Pope Francis’s newest one, which focuses on environmental issues, has caused a frenzy among reporters.
Scheduled for official release this Thursday, the much-anticipated encyclical was leaked early on Monday. The most talked-about thing in the document: it includes a strong stance on human-caused climate change, a move that is sure to be controversial among some conservative critics.
Sources in the Vatican reportedly caution that the leaked draft is an “intermediate” version of the document and not necessarily identical to the final text. Still, the text states clearly that human activity is causing climate change. “Plenty of scientific studies point out that the last decades of global warming have been mostly caused by the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) especially generated by human action,” according to a Washington Post translation.
With such a hot-button issue in the mix, it’s no wonder that climate change has been the main focus of the discussion around the encyclical. But it’s by no means the only environmental issue the final document is expected to address — nor is it necessarily the most important.
If the leaked draft is any indication of what’s coming on Thursday, Pope Francis will also be tackling pollution, water quality and loss of biodiversity. These problems are some of today’s most pressing environmental concerns, not just alongside climate change, but in many ways because of it.
“If you look at a lot of the extractive industries that are fueling climate change, we’ve kind of been hit twice by our errors,” says Kelly Mitchell, energy campaign director for Greenpeace. The same industries that contribute so substantially to climate-altering greenhouse gas output, such as mining and coal-burning, often have the added effect of contributing to the degradation of natural habitats, the endangerment of wild species and the quality of our air and water, she says.
In a second double whammy, these same environmental concerns are likely to be exacerbated in a major way by climate change itself. Scientists generally agree that global warming poses broad threats to the environment, having been linked to an increase in severe weather events, droughts, fires, disease, extinctions and crop failures, to name a few. In these ways, all of the environmental issues likely to be discussed in the papal encyclical are inextricably tied to one another.
And while climate change is undoubtedly an overarching environmental influence, a strong position on its causes is hardly the most surprising aspect of the encyclical. Pope Francis has made headlines frequently in the past for his unequivocal support of aggressive climate action and significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions around the world.
In fact, Dan Misleh, founding director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, argues that the encyclical’s historic nature has less to do with its climate stance — although certainly that’s making enough waves on its own — and more to do with the fact that “it’s the first time that an encyclical has ever been written just on the environment.”
Misleh adds, “The Vatican has already announced that this encyclical is intended for the entire world, not just the Catholic community,” and its far-reaching impact could be owed to another aspect of the document, which ties together all of the environmental concerns it will address: its focus on environmental justice. For its part, the leaked draft also includes major sections dedicated to diminishing quality of human life, social degradation and planetary inequalities.
The Catholic Church’s historic emphasis on social justice makes this focus in the encyclical no more surprising than its position on climate change. But nevertheless, the social inequalities that are so often tied to environmental crises are among the document’s most important points.
“What we’re increasingly seeing is that people and their communities are not only at the heart of the climate change debate right now, but across the spectrum of the environmental issues,” says Mitchell, from Greenpeace. Experts have long argued that deforestation, biodiversity loss, water shortages and poor water quality, loss of traditional lands and any number of climate change effects have disproportionate impacts on developing countries and the world’s poorest people.
These inequalities, and the moral imperative to correct them, is likely to be a major focus in the encyclical and could be an area that extends the document’s reach beyond the Catholic community in an even bigger way than its discussion of climate science. One reason for the issue’s resonance is that Pope Francis, himself, is from Argentina, where many of the above environmental problems are of deep concern.
“He has witnessed firsthand some of these environmental problems, and he has seen environmental injustice in his own country — and he’s clearly been a champion of the poor throughout his life and especially his pontificate,” says Misleh of the Pope. “I think [the social justice discussion] will be very much welcomed by those who are working for environmental justice.”
A focus on the intersection of people and nature has the potential to bring about real change, says Lynn Scarlett, managing director for public policy at The Nature Conservancy. “The environmental challenges of the future really are as much about people as they are about nature,” she says. “Therefore, enhancing the awareness by people on how these issues, including climate, touch down in their backyards … can help to motivate the kind of creative action that will drive towards a better future. So certainly we welcome the Pope’s voice on these issues, and we welcome the degree to which his voice and reach can help bring these issues home to people.”
Whether the final document will contain significant textual changes from the leaked draft remains to be seen. But all indications, even prior to the leak, have suggested that climate change is just one of many environmental issues the encyclical will raise. For Pope Francis, the combined effects on human societies — especially the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people — is likely the most important message.
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