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Pope will 'change the world'

Brigitte OsterathJune 19, 2015

It consists of 200 pages on ecology, climate, natural resources and the need for change: Pope Francis' encyclical has caused quite a stir. But will the move have any long-lasting effect toward climate action?

Enzyclical Laudato Si Photo: REUTERS/Max Rossi
Image: Reuters/M. Rossi

Even before the so-called eco-encyclical "Laudato si" was officially released, climate activists were celebrating Pope Francis as savior of the Earth.

The Brazilian climate protection organization Observatorio do Clima even published a video in which the Pope fistfights as a kind of Rocky Balboa against the exploiters of our planet's resources.

Activists around the world were not disappointed when the much anticipated document was presented in the Vatican on June 18.

"The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," Pope Francis wrote.

"If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us," the paper reads. "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain."

It was a clear message to all climate change skeptics: The Pope acknowledged in front of the whole world that climate change is man-made, and that the time to act is now.

As the story goes, the Pope was presumably disappointed by the outcome of past climate change conferences and intended to set a course for the discussions in Paris this coming December.

NGOs praise the pope

Nongovernmental organizations around the world hurried to comment on the document soon after it was presented.

WWF's message on the encyclical read: "It leaves nothing to be desired in matters of clarity."

"It is good that the Pope is taking a determined stand against climate change deniers and skeptics, and is following the scientific opinion that climate change is mainly man-made," added Eberhard Brandes, head of WWF Germany.

Greenpeace particularly took to the fact that Pope Francis is pushing for the exit from fossil-fuel energy "without delay."

"It's a clear message to oil and coal companies like Vattenfall or Shell," Greenpace wrote in a statement. Now, it's the governments' turn to make the demanded energy revolution happen, it says.

The NGO Germanwatch, seeking to influence public policy over trade and the environment, called the encyclical simply "a successful provocation."

coal-fired power station in China Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Oded Balilty
"No more energy from fossil fuels," demands the PopeImage: ddp images/AP Photo/Oded Balilty

He will 'change the world'

Pope Francis called for a complete end to our current way of life.

"The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet's capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes," Pope Francis wrote.

"The Pope's encyclical will make history," said Prelate Bernd Klaschka, director of the Episcopal campaign Adveniat, which supports the work of the Catholic church in Latin America.

That is because the document explicitly addresses not only Catholics, but "all people living on this planet."

Klaschka particularly stressed that Pope Francis sees environmental questions as being deeply linked to questions of social justice.

"It is a wonderful text that Pope Francis has given us," Klaschka said. "This Pope from Latin America will change the world!"

Possible to truly make a difference

Linking society and environment is indeed what makes the pope's statement special, Michael Kühn told DW. Kühn is a climate and environment specialist with the organization Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German aid for world hunger) in Bonn.

"The Pope makes connections between fighting poverty, social justice, exploiting resources, life-style choices and capitalism - and that is extremely progressive."

Even if NGOs have been preaching these things for decades now, it makes a big difference if the Pope says it, Kühn added.

"The Catholic Church has more than one billion followers. Even if only 10 percent of them become politically active, that is not a small number."

Pope Francis Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
How much influence does the pope really have on people nowadays?Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Pizzoli

Supporting climate negotiations

Some speculated that Pope Francis' encyclical addresses mainly the powerful, for example those people who make money by selling carbon credits.

Michael Schöpf, head of the Institute for Social and Development Studies at the Munich School of Philosophy, doubts that. Although decision-makers are definitely included, "this encyclical addresses all of civil society," Schöpf told DW.

Kühn points out that one does not exclude the other. There may be people involved in climate negotiations who would like to do the right thing, but simply can't - due to industry breathing down their necks.

"The pope calls on people like those to follow the leadings of their conscience."

With important negotiations pending - like COP21, the Paris climate conference - the encyclical has come at "just the right time."

Walking the talk?

If an encyclical can ever really make a difference in the world, "then it is this one," Schöpf said.

The pope's newest document is very concrete, Schöpf said.

For example, the pope demands creation of a global climate authority with the power to impose sanctions.

However, the actual consequences of the encyclical will depend on whether the Catholic Church will really walk its talk, Kühn says.

For example, he names the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank. Will they now divest from the oil and coal industry?

Kühn doubts that. "A lack of realizing [moral ideas] has always been a big problem."