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4 Reasons the Pope's Encyclical Sparks a Rare Chance for Change


Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, titled Laudato Si: Our Care for our Common Home, is sparking a rare opening for change. The messages within the 184-page papal encyclical, including the moral imperative to take global action on climate change, are gaining momentum leading up to Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Washington D.C. Sept. 22, where he will meet with President Barack Obama and address a joint session of Congress.

At the first in a series of interfaith events hosted by the University of San Francisco (USF) on the intersection of environment and faith, Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, explained: “This encyclical, and its statement on the intrinsic rights of nature, is a breath of fresh air. Efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental issues have been driven by science, policy, economics, technology, and law. But science and policy alone are not going to solve these problems. We need these larger values–religion, art, and philosophy.”

Four reasons why the pope’s encyclical is important

Inspired by the Pope’s upcoming visit to the United States, I offer the following four reasons why I think his environmental encyclical is important:

  1. It has sparked a rare opening for change;

  2. It is not just about climate change, but an appeal for integral ecology;

  3. It is part of a larger movement; and

  4. In the end, it is a call to action.

1. A rare opening for change

This is a rare moment in which we have the opportunity to raise awareness and inspire action. For Catholics and non-Catholics, the encyclical has the potential to transform the global discussion on climate change by framing the planetary crisis in moral and religious terms at a strategic moment in international climate negotiations. The hope is that Pope Francis’ messages will influence policymakers at the upcoming United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year, as well as be highlighted in his upcoming addresses to the U.N. and the U.S. Congress.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, less than half of all U.S. Catholics (47 percent) believe that global warming is a consequence of human activity. Take note: Pope Francis is saying that climate change is real and that humans are causing it. In addition, he connects stewardship of the natural world with justice for the poorest and most vulnerable.

“This opening, it’s never going to happen again in this particular way,” stressed Tucker. She explained: “This is so rich. And that is why people are responding all over the world. It’s poetic. It’s scientific. It’s spiritual. It’s grounded. It’s ecologically sophisticated. And it’s appealing to the sense that we are part of a great mystery, a huge, holy mystery.”

2. Appeal for an integral ecology

A key point to stress is that the encyclical is not just about climate change. It has a much deeper and robust reach. In a recent article in the New York Times Book Review, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben explained: “Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet — an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.”

Integral ecology, an ecology that links the human and social condition to the environment, is a key theme in the encyclical. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature,” the Pope wrote in the encyclical. USF President Paul Fitzgerald artfully expresses the concept of integral ecology in The Beloved in Nature, a video co-produced by Green Impact, in partnership with Northcutt Productions.

You can watch The Beloved in Nature below:

3. Part of a larger movement

“The papal encyclical is igniting energy all over the world, as almost never before in our lifetime,” Tucker suggested. We are on the leading edge of a new movement that weaves science and spirit to find solutions for our social, political and environmental challenges. “This is about long-term change, and a moral force that is unstoppable. It’s a Gandhian force of change,” Tucker said.

McKibben commented: “On a sprawling, multicultural, fractious planet, no person can be heard by everyone. But Pope Francis comes closer than anyone else. He heads the world’s largest religious denomination and so has 1.2 billion people in his flock …” Building on the Pope’s reach, other religious leaders have become energized by the encyclical, including more than 400 Jewish rabbis and 20 Muslim scholars, who have responded to this moment of change.

4. In the end, it’s a call to action

For the sake of Mother Nature and all living creatures, the encyclical aims to evoke contemplation, action and change. “An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” Pope Francis wrote. He ends with a call to action: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”

Inspired? Here are a few ways you can learn more:

Image credits: 1) iStock artist Neneos, 2) Heather Craig

Deborah Fleischer is President and Founder of Green Impact.  She recently helped the University of San Francisco launch its new Office of Sustainability, including the production of a series of videos (including the one in this article). 

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. She helps companies design and launch new green strategies and programs, as well as communicate about successes. She is a GRI-certified sustainability reporter and LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.

Deborah has helped to design and implement numerous successful cross-sector partnerships and new green initiatives, including the California Environmental Dialogue, Curb Your Carbon and the Institute at the Golden Gate.

She has helped create lasting alliances among such organizations as Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with companies such as Disney, Arco, Bank of America and Passport Resorts.

You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at Deborah@greenimpact.com.

Read more stories by Deborah Fleischer