Pope Francis may not be infallible in many people’s eyes, but he is indefatigable when it comes to provoking debate on global issues that matter.
This week it has been climate change.
The Vatican has published the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” on the impact of human activity on the environment and especially the threat of climate change.
By doing so the Pope has got the world’s media talking about the single biggest challenge facing the human race – one that puts the crises in the Middle East or Ukraine in their proper context as serious geopolitical issues but not existential threats.
The letter sends a powerful message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – as well as Francis’s 6.3 million followers on Twitter, not all of who will be of the same faith.
The letter is perfectly timed to raise awareness of the issue and increase pressure on political leaders as governments prepare for two landmark global conferences later in the year.
In December, the next UN climate change summit takes place in Paris and the pressure is on to agree legally-binding limits to carbon emissions to prevent average global temperatures rising more by than 2 degrees Celsius – the level above which scientists agree climate change will have a disastrous effect.
Before that in September, world leaders will gather at the UN in New York to agree on new Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to ensure the eradication of poverty through equitable economic development, but in a way that does not damage the environment.
Climate scientists and environmental activists have been sinking into despair at their seeming inability to get across to the world’s politicians and public the scale of the threat from climate change and the need to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.
The message from the Pope should help raise their morale. Although, it calls for urgent action, it is clear from the encyclical the Pope believes there is still time to avert the worst effects of global warming and also – critically – that the solution lies in humanity’s hands.
So the Pope’s intervention in the climate change debate has come at a critical moment and will increase pressure on climate negotiators and their political masters to make the necessary compromises and commitments at the coming global summits to ensure action is taken to prevent catastrophic global warming.
It is no accident this Pope has gone further than his predecessors in raising the alarm about the impact of economic development on the environment. On his election by his fellow cardinals in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose the name Francis to acknowledge the importance to him of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology, who taught about the importance of the natural world and the need to respect it like a sister or mother.
In line with the social teachings of his namesake, Pope Francis is also alive to the need to ensure that when taking action to ensure the wellbeing of the environment, the impact does not fall disproportionately on the poor and he seems to be on the side of the developing countries which are pushing the richer, developed nations to make proportionately deeper cuts in carbon emissions and provide greater financial support to help poorer countries leapfrog to clean technologies as they develop.
The papal encyclical also notably bases its argument in the latest science on climate change demonstrating how religion and science can work hand in hand and need not be anathema to one another, as some atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue.
It is doubtful the Pope’s intervention in the debate will prove decisive on its own, but it adds a powerful voice in favour of concerted action on climate change and should influence not only public opinion and governments, but also that other pivotal constituency – the people running carbon-emitting businesses.