What would Jesus do about global warming?

Pope Francis Statement on the environment is readable and in places, beautiful. With a clear eye on some global climate-change diplomacy it affirms that carbon emitted by humans is the main reason why Earth is warming, and urges rapid action.

AS RELIGIOUS statements go, the one by Pope Francis on the environment is readable and in places, beautiful. With a clear eye on some global climate-change diplomacy which will come to a head in December, it affirms that carbon emitted by humans is the main reason why Earth is warming, and urges rapid action, especially by rich countries, to curb it.

The document was formally presented on June 18th but leaked in draft form three days earlier. It was the first time the world’s largest religious body had devoted a big, set-piece pronouncement to the welfare of the planet, and it was a new style of papal statement. Encyclicals used to be letters to bishops; then they became missives to all Catholics; this one seems to address humanity in general. Although it often cites the green ideas of the Orthodox church, it avoids theological talk about sin and draws on non-Christian as well as non-religious sources. Many of its 190 or so pages could have come from a secular NGO; but there are tender and lyrical passages which call for a “change of heart” among consumers and decision-makers.

The inspiration, as Pope Francis has explained, came from his experience in Latin America; and its influence depends a lot on the reaction in his native region, which is home to 425m Catholics (nearly 40% of the global total) and the locus of some sharp environmental dilemmas.

In left-wing Catholic circles, especially Hispanic ones, the document was hailed as vindication of a newish stream of thinking, which aims to speak for the poor and the global South without being Marxist; it first emerged clearly at a Latin American bishops’ meeting in the Brazilian town of Aparecida in 2007. The current pope, who was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, was a key voice at that meeting and is now seen as a bearer of its message.

Saving the world
And the anti-colonial spirit of Aparecida is clearly present in his encyclical; it quotes the bishops’ warning that green proposals for “internationalising” the Amazon could be thinly veiled assaults on sovereignty. Still, it was only at Aparecida, the pontiff has said, that he realised that trees were worth saving. “When I heard the Brazilian bishops speak of the deforestation of Amazonia, I ended up understanding [that the trees of] Amazonia are the lungs of the world,” Francis told an air-borne news conference earlier this year.

It is true that many woes, including deforestation, can best be seen from high up. But at ground level in some ecologically stricken places, the image of papally inspired Catholics resisting Latin America’s polluters and tree-fellers gives way to a more complex reality. For one thing, the Catholic church’s ability to fight for any collective cause has been limited by the rise of Protestant sects offering an atomistic path to salvation and wealth; some Latin Catholics now mimic that style.

In Brazil, a land where many forms of Christianity abound, some of the loudest political voices are of evangelicals with ties to agribusiness; and one of the most zealous Catholics in Brazilian public life is Blairo Maggi, a senator from Mato Grosso state who is known as the king of soya and is sceptical about tree conservation.

Meanwhile Edilberto Sena, a leftist Catholic priest in the city of Santarém, acknowledges that some poor people struggle to grasp his concern with illegal logging in the nearby forest; and he has to compete with preachers who promise help with more personal worries. He hails the fact that the pope is acting as “shepherd to the whole world, not just Catholics” but he doubts whether it will change his country’s masters. Other Brazilians are more upbeat. Valdir Raupp, a devoutly Catholic senator, hopes that thanks to the encyclical, education will replace repression as the best way to preserve forests.

In Ecuador the paradoxes are even greater. President Rafael Correa sees the encyclical as boosting his personal eco-Catholic credentials; he attended a Vatican conference in April that heralded the papal initiative. But Mr Correa faces a wave of protest over his own environmental act.

In 2013 he broke a vow not to drill for oil in the Yasuni national park, prompting more than 750,000 people to sign a call for a referendum on the issue which was turned down on a technicality. He dissolved an NGO, Pachamama, as a “threat to national security” after it made a small protest against oil tenders in the Amazon. His push to start open-pit mining in remote forested valleys has led to open conflict with local indigenous leaders. In recent weeks, a plan which might have altered the status of the Galápagos National Park, on the islands whose fauna inspired Charles Darwin, was a factor behind a wave of demonstrations in the cities of Ecuador and the archipelago.

And in Argentina, too, environmental problems can present ironies rather than straight fights between good and evil. One of the biggest green concerns in Buenos Aires is a paper mill in Uruguay which discharges into the river between the two countries; there was fury in 2013 when Uruguay announced a rise in its output. The main object of Argentine wrath was not some northern capitalist but Uruguay’s President José Mujica, who is usually seen as a liberal-leftist hero.

But these ideological puzzles will hardly daunt a pope who takes all earthly doctrines with a pinch of salt; he spent his early career parrying the fury of a right-wing junta, and when he visits America in the autumn, he will have to persuade some people he is not a communist.

The Economist |

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