Let's Think

Has the pope changed his religion?

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Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, seems to be the latest convert to what an increasing number of influential people in recent times described as the “new religion” of climate fighters.

In what seems to be at odds with some aspects of Christian orthodox doctrine, he seems to suggest man is all-powerful over nature and suggests that a new global “authority” could solve all the problems of “one world with a common plan”. Many Christians would interpret this as indication of the world order predicted in the book of Revelations.

Releasing the first-ever circular letter or encyclical by a pontiff on the environment, mainly dealing with climate change, Pope Francis placed the Church right in the middle of the raging debate over the extent to which man is responsible for global warming.

And he does so almost exclusively on religious grounds, as he prepares to address the United Nations summit on climate change in September.

Pope Francis holds a degree in chemistry. When, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he became pope in 2013, he adopted the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, known for his love for animals and nature.

This background shows in his encyclical, as he widely draws on the conclusions of some scientists in recent decades, starting with the Earth Charter formulated in 1972 by the think tank The Club of Rome, and pronouncements like that, that many species (in nature) have become extinct “for reasons related to human activity”.

“Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us,” he wrote.

The pontiff also uses the occasion to call into question some fundamentals of modern life and the economic/financial systems that underpin it. Singled out for criticism is the global financial system, “where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment”.

About markets he says, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.

To this he then adds: “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan. Yet the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide.”

In what seems to be a brave and holistic effort to look at the problems associated with climate change, he states that only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations”, can those actions be considered ethical.

No practical suggestions are, however, made about how the “social costs” should be calculated or accounted for.

There is also nothing in the document about the role of nature itself over millions of years in driving cycles of climate change, or how the projections of the Earth Charter have turned out to be wrong and had to be adapted.

Science or religion?

Nobel Prize laureate for physics, Dr Ivar Giaever, in 2011, resigned from the American Physical Society over the group’s claim that evidence of man-made climate change is “incontrovertible”. In 2009 he said: “Global warming has become a new religion.”

In February this year, Rajendra Pachuari, then the United Nation’s top climate scientist, acknowledged as much when he said: “For me the protection of planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than my mission, it is my religion.”

Pope Francis places his appeal – or “argument” for that matter – almost exclusively in that realm when he states: “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.

“It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.”

We think

It is certainly the Pope’s right and duty to call on the faithful to act responsibly in their interaction with the environment and nature. But it is counterproductive to brand them as “sinners” and “obstructionist”, and tar them with the brush of the “new religion” as “denialists,” if they do not accept full responsibility for climate change.

To reach a balanced view on climate change an “either/or” attitude is the one that should be rejected. The need to adapt to, and be prepared for, the inevitability of extreme weather events and natural cycles of climate change, should also be preached. Reading the Old Testament carefully and with an open mind, would provide him with enough grounds to do so.

And, lastly, he should note that technological innovation and market forces are already doing their collective bit to facilitate both adaption and change on the energy consumption front, as we reported last week.

by Piet Coetzer

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