Commentary — Pope Francis to climate change deniers: You’re wrong

The world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point, he warns, but our response has been inadequate.

(Andrew Medichini | The Associated Press) Pope Francis, shown in August 2023, uses science and religion to dispute the assertions of climate change deniers.

Vatican City • The pope is not happy.

Eight years after the release of “Laudato Si’,” his encyclical on the environment, there has been little progress on addressing the issue of climate change. And few people seem to care.

In his new apostolic exhortation, “Laudate Deum [Praise God],” Pope Francis writes that “our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”

He also takes on climate change deniers — those who “deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change” and deny the cause is the use of fossil fuels.

As he did in his earlier encyclical, Francis begins by taking a serious look at what scientists are telling us about the causes and consequences of global warming.

He notes that the overwhelming majority of scientists specializing in the climate agree that there is a correlation between global warming and “the accelerated increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly since the mid-20th century.”

The pope supports this assertion with scientific data.

“The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which causes global warming, was stable,” he writes, “until the 19th century, below 300 parts per million in volume.”

Francis adds: “While I was writing Laudato Si’, they hit a historic high — 400 parts per million — until arriving at 423 parts per million in June 2023. More than 42% of total net emissions since the year 1850 were produced after 1990.”

At the same time, “in the last 50 years, the temperature has risen at an unprecedented speed, greater than any time over the past two thousand years. In this period, the trend was a warming of 0.15 degrees Celsius per decade, double that of the past 150 years. From 1850 on, the global temperature has risen by 1.1 degree C.

“At this rate,” he concludes, “it is possible that in just 10 years we will reach the recommended maximum global ceiling of 1.5 degrees C.”

This will be disastrous.

“We know that every time the global temperature increases by 0.5 C,” he writes, “the intensity and frequency of great rains and floods increase in some areas and severe droughts in others, extreme heat waves in some places and heavy snowfall in others.”

This is just the beginning.

“If up to now we could have heat waves several times a year, what will happen if the global temperature increases by 1.5 C, which we are approaching? Those heat waves will be much more frequent and with greater intensity. If it should rise above 2 degrees, the ice caps of Greenland and a large part of Antarctica will melt completely, with immensely grave consequences for everyone.”

The pope describes how desperate the situation is. “Some effects of the climate crisis are already irreversible, at least for several hundred years, such as the increase in the global temperature of the oceans, their acidification and the decrease of oxygen.”

But things will get worse.

“We are approaching a critical point,” he warns. There is the possibility that what we are doing now will precipitate a cascade of events leading to “the reduction of ice sheets, changes in ocean currents, deforestation in tropical rainforests and the melting of permafrost in Russia.” If this happens, “no intervention will be able to halt a process once begun.”

Francis condemns those who want to blame this problem on the poor who are having too many babies. It is richer countries that have caused this problem, not the poor.

The pope notes 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.” To have a significant long-term impact on the problem, Francis calls for “a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model.”

He also takes on those who assert that reducing the use of fossil fuels and developing cleaner energy sources will cost jobs. He argues that “the transition to renewable forms of energy, properly managed, as well as efforts to adapt to the damage caused by climate change, are capable of generating countless jobs in different sectors.”

The pope blames what is happening on economic greed and the technocratic paradigm that believes “reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” He repeats what he said in “Laudato Si’” — “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

While “we have made impressive and awesome technological advances,” he writes, “we have not realized that at the same time we have turned into highly dangerous beings, capable of threatening the lives of many beings and our own survival.”

Francis complains that “the mentality of maximum gain at minimal cost, disguised in terms of reasonableness, progress and illusory promises, makes impossible any sincere concern for our common home and any real preoccupation about assisting the poor and the needy discarded by our society.”

The international community has not responded adequately to the crisis. “Despite the many negotiations and agreements,” he notes, “global emissions continue to increase.”

“We know that at this pace in just a few years we will surpass the maximum recommended limit of 1.5 C and shortly thereafter even reach 3 C, with a high risk of arriving at a critical point,” he writes.

“Even if we do not reach this point of no return,” he continues, “it is certain that the consequences would be disastrous and precipitous measures would have to be taken, at enormous cost and with grave and intolerable economic and social effects. Although the measures that we can take now are costly, the cost will be all the more burdensome the longer we wait.”

The pope calls for binding international commitments for energy transition that are “efficient, obligatory and readily monitored.” The process must be “drastic” and “intense” with the commitment of all.

Francis ends by presenting spiritual motivations for Christians to respond to the climate crisis. He cites Leviticus 25, in which God says, “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” He notes that Jesus “was in constant touch with nature” and invites us “to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world.”

He asks: “The world sings of an infinite love: How can we fail to care for it?”

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)