Francis speaks frankly on the crisis of civilisation

Below, text of my article that first appeared on TheJournal.ie last night, just ahead of the unveiling of the eagerly awaited Papal Encyclical. Thus far, it has been read over 48,000 times, with well over 1,000 shares via Facebook and solid pick-up on Twitter too. What this suggests is that, contrary to the prevailing view within our mainstream media, there is indeed a keen public appetite to be told the unvarnished truth about the unfolding climate and ecological crises.

Ironically, the last time the Irish Times published an article of mine, it attracted almost 700 online comments, and was the ‘most read’ article on Irishtimes.com for most of the day it was published. So, while the public wants journalism to be honest and forthright, editors remain fearful, uncertain, indifferent and distracted; this is masked, I suspect, by hard-boiled cynicism.

Whether this will in any way be dented by the powerful papal intervention seems, at first glance, unlikely. After all, he appears to have been channeling Naomi Klein in pointing out the inescapable fact that one exuberant, restless and ingenious species has, in the blink of a geological eye, overwhelmed the natural world, upended aeons of evolution and swept all before it on what looks ever more like a rendezvous with self-inflicted oblivion.

But, at least to this observer’s eye, there is something dramatically different about this high-level intervention (even allowing for the Catholic church’s many self-inflicted travails). As ever, time will tell.

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FEW COULD imagine the ultra-conservative Vatican at the epicentre of a rebellion against rampant capitalism and its destruction of the natural world. The release tomorrow (June 17th) of what may well be the most radical papal encyclical in modern history strongly suggests we do indeed live in extraordinary times.

A leaked draft of the encyclical (or teaching letter) suggests that Pope Francis, a boxer in his youth, is coming out swinging, warning of the need for truly radical steps to arrest the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem”. Put plainly, he warned: “destroy Creation and Creation will destroy us”.

The pope explicitly links bare-knuckle capitalism with both ecological catastrophe and growing inequality. Given that just 67 billionaires control more than half the entire world’s wealth – each individual billionaire controlling more resources than an average 100 million people – it is clear that the pope is making some powerful new enemies. These same plutocrats bankroll politics and own the media in many countries, so the backlash against Francis will be epic.

In recent months, the science-savvy pontiff, who holds a Masters degree in chemistry, outraged neoliberals by dismissing ‘trickle-down’ economics as “a failed theory”. He went on to warn that “the invisible hand of capitalism cannot be trusted”. He also argued that “excessive consumerism is killing our culture, values and ethics…and the conservative ideal of individualism is undermining the common good”.

Francis is the first pope from the Global South, the part of the world that has been the loser as globalised capitalism concentrated more power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. His experience in his native Argentina, which was torn apart by economic collapses has left Francis deeply skeptical of the very capitalism pretty much every Irish politician, economist and commentator believes is essential to ‘grow the economy’.

Economic growth has come with a fearsome price tag. Half of all the wild animals on Earth have disappeared since 1970, according to a major WWF study. On our current trajectory, within the next three or four decades most of what remains of the natural world will quite literally have been wiped off the face of the planet. This generation of humans is both living through and the driving force behind the greatest global mass extinction event in at least the last 50 million years.

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the deniers to claim otherwise, climate change continues gathering both pace and momentum, setting in train processes that are, at least on human timescales, essentially irreversible.

Polar scientists now calculate a minimum of five metres of sea level rise is already ‘locked in’ as a result of unstoppable melting events in Antarctica and Greenland. This is sufficient to redraw the map of the world, and render many of our great coastal cities uninhabitable over time. However, our current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pathway could, in just another decade or two, increase the amount of ‘locked-in’ ice melt to raise global sea levels by a staggering 20 metres over time.

While global average temperatures have already risen by almost 1C, causing sharp rises in extreme weather events across the world, climate scientists warn that our ever-increasing GHG emissions as a result of burning fossil fuels are rapidly pushing the global temperature gauge towards the +2C ‘red line’. Beyond this point lies a near future of weather disasters, famines, droughts and widespread economic and social disruption on a scale not witnessed since World War II.

The ecological and climate emergency is quite literally the gravest threat human beings have ever collectively faced.

While speaking as the head of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic church, Francis stresses that this encyclical, Laudato si (“Blessed are You”) is first and foremost a moral, rather than an overtly religious message. To drive home this point, the 200-page document will tomorrow be jointly launched by a Catholic cardinal, a Christian Orthodox church leader and a climate scientist who happens to be an atheist.

The encyclical will make acutely uncomfortable reading for practising Catholics like Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who, in tandem with Environment minister, Alan Kelly, has decided – for short-term gain – to make ignoring climate change de facto government policy.

The timing of Francis’ intervention is propitious: the UN’s major climate conference, dubbed COP 21, takes place in Paris in December, and the pope is taking to the road on an intensive lobbying campaign in support of a deal radical enough to avert disaster. Scientists are impressed. “The encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations”, said Gavin Schmidt of NASA.

“The attitudes hindering the path towards a solution…go from negating the problem to indifference, to an easy resignation, or to blind faith in technical solutions”, wrote Francis. At a stroke he dismantled the favourite talking points of deniers. He also dismissed ‘market fixes’ such as carbon credits, pointing out that these most likely “give rise to new forms of speculation”.

Laudato si may be the most genuinely radical document in a generation. It strikes at the heart of a deadly crisis by identifying unrestrained capitalism and the ideology of throw-away consumerism as widening inequality while both devastating the natural world and destabilising the global climate.

If Pope Francis’ intervention does indeed prove a decisive turning point, even the most cynical among us may have to concede that, from time to time, miracles do happen.

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Footnote: below, the comments made jointly by Prof John Sweeney and Fr Sean MacDonagh (the latter is known to have had a significant direct input into shaping Francis’ thinking on climate justice and theology in particular) in response to today’s encyclical. I felt it worth carrying them in full:

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THE PAPAL Encyclical Laudato Si, or Praised Be is titled after a famous prayer by St. Francis of Assisi and reflects the commitment of Pope Francis to the themes of environmental stewardship and climate change. In it he calls for an ethical and economic revolution to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality. This eagerly awaited encyclical from the first Pontiff from the Developing World brings immense moral authority to the requirement, especially by developed countries to address in a meaningful way the growing threat of climate change. In what is an endorsement of the environmental movement from the world’s oldest and largest international organisation, Pope Francis, a trained chemist, calls for urgent action to develop policies to reduce greenhouse gases, including substituting fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources.

The Encyclical follows on from a number of comments by previous Popes on the subject and emphasises that climate change is not simply an economic issue, but one with immense moral and ethical dimensions. In the lead-up to the crucial Paris Conference in November, when a global agreement is hoped for it provides an important contribution. The Irish bishops have also been prominent in addressing this issue through their recent project/pastoral letter entitled: “Cry of the Earth” prepared in conjunction with Trocaire. Indeed the two principal authors of this document: Fr. Sean McDonagh and Professor John Sweeney are aware that their work was provided to Cardinal Turkson, the main author of the encyclical. A major conference on Climate Justice supported by Trocaire, Maynooth University and St. Patrick’s College, timed to coincide with the encyclical, will take place in Maynooth next week1.

The main theme of the Encyclical is that of climate justice, essentially that the burdens imposed by the main greenhouse gas emitters should be recompensed, that the polluter should pay principle be recognised. This is highly relevant to Ireland, which has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world. It is also relevant to the current Climate and Low Carbon Development Bill, currently making its way through the Oireachtas.

It is ironic that Irish politicians have refused to accept modest amendments designed to make the bill an effective instrument to tackle Ireland’s contribution to adverse climate change impacts. It is particularly ironic, given the worldwide attention on climate justice, that the government vetoed an amendment to include mention of climate justice in the Bill as recently as last week. It is also regrettable that Ireland refuses to express in its legislation a target for greenhouse gas reduction as far away as 2050, a year that most other countries specify in their legislation.

The Pope’s message is highly relevant to Ireland. It is a reminder of the urgent and compelling need for courageous political leadership to see off short term powerful interest groups in putting in place a legislative regime that is not simply a sop to the problem. It is also a reminder that climate change mitigation is should not simply involved an economist-centred approach, but one that reflects the global as well as local interests of climate justice.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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2 Responses to Francis speaks frankly on the crisis of civilisation

  1. Paul Holden says:

    Thanks, John.
    Good article in npr.org on why the Pope’s message matters. http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2015/06/16/414927699/why-the-pope-s-stand-on-climate-change-matters

  2. Eric Conroy says:

    Thanks for your article John. I’m looking forward to reading the encyclical in full over the summer if I can get my hands on a paper copy. I like the angle that it is not just a Catholic or even Christian document, but speaks to everybody on the planet about the morality of climate change and environmental destruction. Quotes from it have been very illuminating. I sincerely hope it has a big impact on Paris in December.

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