What makes Pope Francis and his 183-page encyclical so radical isn’t just his call to urgently tackle climate change. It’s the fact he openly and unashamedly goes against the grain of dominant social, economic and environment policies.
While the Argentina-born pope is a very humble person whose vision is of a “poor church for the poor”, he seems increasingly determined to play a central role on the world stage. Untainted by the realities of government and the greed of big business, he is perhaps the only major figure who can legitimately confront the world’s economic and political elites in the way he has.
However his radical message potentially puts him on a confrontation course with global powerbrokers and leaders of national governments, international institutions and multinational corporations.
The backlash began even before the encyclical was officially published. US presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Catholic, feels the pope should stay out of the climate debate, joining other Republicans, fossil fuel lobbyists and climate denier think-tanks in seeking to discredit Pope Francis’s intervention.
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What makes the pope so radical?
There a several meanings of the word “radical” that can be applied to the Pope and in particular his forthcoming encyclical.
First, radical can be understood as going back to the roots (from Latin radix, root). The majority of Catholics live in the Global South; in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Francis is the first pope from the Global South, and naming himself in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, “a man of poverty and peace who loved nature and animals”, signalled to the world a commitment to going back to the roots of human existence.
The pope knows the plight of the majority world. Before he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was a priest in the vast, poor neighborhoods, the villas miserias or slums, of Argentina’s capital.
Improving the lives of slum dwellers and addressing climate change is, for Pope Francis, one and the same thing. Both require tackling the structural, root causes of inequality, injustice, poverty and environmental degradation.
For example, his encyclical says:
Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drink- able water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. (p. 23)
This stands in stark contrast to, for example, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, the world’s largest food and bottled water company, who thinks water is a normal commodity with a market value, and not a human right. Nestlé is far from unusual. Its stance is backed up by the official water privatization policies of the World Bank, IMF and other international institutions.
In fact, the encyclical is a radical – for a pope and international leader, unprecedented – attack on the logic of the market and consumerism, which has been expanded into all spheres of life.
The document states:
Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism … leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. (p. 149-150)
The pope rejects market fundamentalism, instead arguing that “the market alone does not ensure human development and social inclusion.”
In the same way, he warns us of the brave new world of carbon markets such as the EU Emissions Trading System and the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which have been created to reduce the world’s carbon emissions.
The encyclical states:
The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (p. 126)
The pope’s right. The same criticisms of carbon markets have been made by myself and others.
Will he make any difference?
Pope Francis has already angered conservative Catholics in the US by clearly stating that:
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. (p. 20)
While the pope is not a politician – or maybe precisely because he is not one – he commands high moral and ethical authority that goes beyond traditional partisan lines. His encyclical speaks truth to power, and he might be the only person with both the clout and the desire to meaningfully deliver a message like this:
Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. (p. 21)
The bosses of Shell, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies will not like this message, as it threatens their fundamental business model, and it also stands in contrast to the underwhelming ambitions of the G7 leaders who recently pledged to phase out fossil fuels only by 2100.
The time for bold, radical action on the environment as well as poverty eradication has come. This seems to be Pope Francis’ message: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” (p. 128)
We need to think beyond the current, taken-for-granted logic that believes only markets and consumerism can solve the world’s social and environmental problems. The pope himself believes the situation is so grave that only a new, “true world political authority” will be able to address these problems.