The Green Encyclical: Who will support Pope Francis?
At first sight, the Pope’s green encyclical is a forward-looking pronouncement on contemporary social and environmental issues that should be welcomed by Christians and non-Christians alike. But on closer examination it raises a number of difficult questions about the Pope’s capacity to mobilize support in developing countries, which might be thought his natural enthusiasts, and in the Church itself. The encyclical calls for people around the world to enjoy a cleaner environment, to lead healthier lives and to escape poverty. Pope Francis believes that the Roman Catholic Church is well placed to convey this message because of its outreach across all social and national groupings.
The encyclical comes as United Nations members again try to thrash out an agreement on binding legal commitments to limit climate change ahead of the conference that meets in Paris in December. This will be a follow-up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference whose results were disappointing, largely because of North-South divergences. The encyclical also forms part of the Pope’s campaign to make the Church more responsive to people’s daily concerns on social, economic, ecological and doctrinal matters.
It will, however, be an uphill struggle. Pope Francis’s first challenge is to convince his fellow South Americans, as well as Asians and Africans, to embrace green policies. These continents will account for a growing share of the world’s Christians, his natural constituency, in the decades ahead. Yet they also include governments that are the most skeptical about constraining targets for CO2 emissions and that oppose social and environmental conditions demanded by rich countries in trade agreements. Many in developing countries, including India, China and Brazil, need to be persuaded that fighting climate change and other environmental scourges should be a top priority.
Nonetheless popular discontent over climate change and pollution has started ringing alarm bells. Various developing countries are vulnerable to floods, drought and other climate-related disasters. Air pollution kills more people than road accidents in São Paulo, Brazil. Fatalities from respiratory diseases are now one of the main causes of death in China. Anger at air pollution contributed to the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong. The Chinese communist authorities fear that such discontent may spread to the mainland. Indians complain that inadequate sanitation and waste disposal are stunting children’s growth. Influenced by such concerns, countries from Kenya and Egypt to India and China are increasingly investing in clean technologies, energy saving, and renewables.
So people in developing countries will listen carefully to the Pope’s message but they will want him to go further. In many of these countries, the population bulge exacerbates environmental, social and economic problems. The population of the Philippines is expected to grow from 98.3 million in 2013 to 157 million in 2050; in Bangladesh it will grow from 156 million in 2013 to 201 million in 2050; and in Egypt from 82 million to 121 million. In the Christian community and beyond people will want to know how the Pope will deal with population growth which is accentuating the damaging effects of climate change.
The population explosion points to the greatest challenge to the Pope’s green agenda; this challenge comes from within the Church itself. The Pope is constrained both by his own conservative views on marriage and the family and by fierce opposition to doctrinal change from traditionalists within the Curia. Pope Francis is popular and in this encyclical he is again appealing over the heads of the Curia in Rome to his wider constituency. If his message is to have a lasting effect, even after his own Papacy (the Pope is a sprightly 78 year-old), he must mobilize sustained support for it among Christians around the world. He must also make decisive changes that cannot easily be reversed to the balance of opinion within the College of Cardinals and the Curia. His travel schedule in the run-up to the Paris climate conference in December and his numerous new appointments to the College and the Curia suggest that this Pope has every intention of bringing his proposed agenda to fruition.
This essay was first published in German translation in the June 18, 2015 edition of DIE ZEIT.