Why the Pope’s Environment Encyclical Is a Big Deal

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Francis's new encyclical, titled "Laudato Si (Be Praised): On the Care of Our Common Home," is displayed during the presentation news conference at the Vatican, June 18. Max Rossi/Reuters

The pope’s encyclical on climate change is a big deal.

Sure, past popes have written on the importance of protecting the environment, on favoring the poorest and on rethinking our direction as a species. But this is a major piece of work, and an ardent call from one of our world’s major leaders for us to work together to address this existential problem.

Most interesting and heartening to me is Francis’s linking of the fate of the poor and the future of climate change. This point is well documented in research on the injustice of climate change. For example, Bradley Parks and I found that the poorest nations of the world are far more likely to suffer the impacts of climate-related disasters, and are also far less responsible for the problem.

The timing of the pope’s remarks is also very important. This year countries are both negotiating to reach a global agreement in Paris in December and also individually putting forward their own pledges on what they will do, called INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) in the cumbersome U.N. lingo.

The pope’s statement puts it very plainly to those leaders of nations who might be laggards: It’s time to face climate change very thoughtfully, justly and aggressively.

Finally, having this strong and very considered statement about the urgency and moral imperative of addressing climate change coming from a religious leader is very proper, and part of an important larger movement.

Groups like Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) are taking action in their houses of worship to reduce their energy waste and divest from fossil fuels. But perhaps even more strikingly, they are getting involved in the major policy efforts that are absolutely fundamental if we are going to reduce the hidden and direct subsidies for fossil fuels and make the transformation to renewable carbon-free energy we need to make in the next 15 years.

With humble and inspiringly ambitious projects like the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay, Wisconsin installing a huge solar power array, IPL is lifting up humanity with hope and determination. The pope is more than coming through on his end, and IPL has provided a series of resources for discussing and acting on the pope’s encyclical.

In his self-described “joyful and troubling” 246-paragraph reflection, Pope Francis asks us to consider what the best science on climate change is telling us, and “letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.”

If this piece moves our global society in that direction, it will be a very big deal indeed.

Timmons Roberts is a nonresident senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and the Ittleson professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University. He is a leading expert on climate change and development. Co-author and editor of 11 books and edited volumes, and over 70 articles and book chapters, Roberts's current research focuses on equity and why addressing it is a crucial part of confronting climate change. This article first appeared on the Brookings site.

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