VATICAN CITY, June 18, 2015 (ENS) – “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” declares Pope Francis in his first major teaching on the environment, an encyclical letter released today.

Pope Francis urges all human beings to change their behavior to protect the good resources we all hold in common – the climate, the oceans, biodiversity – “the planet, our common home.”

“Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness,” he writes.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis receives members of a United Nations delegation at Vatican City, May 2014 (Photo by Eskinder Debebe / UN)

Pope Francis has written the first encyclical in history to address humanity’s relationship with the environment. In this, his letter to all the bishops of the Catholic Church, the pontiff repeatedly seeks relief for the world’s poorest people, who suffer the most devastating effects of a warming climate.

“Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest,” writes the Pope. “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” he writes.

From the first word of his encyclical, the Pope draws upon the work of Sant Francis of Assisi, “that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration” when he was elected head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in March 2013.

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us,” writes the Pope.

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her,” he writes about the planet. “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life,” the Pope explains. “This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”

“I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically,” writes the Pope. “He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians.”

“Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human,” he writes.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis draws a crowd to St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, May 12, 2013 (Photo by Edgar Jiménez)

“He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace,” writes Pope Francis about his namesake.

In an overview of the entire encyclical letter, entitled “Laudato Si'” [“Praise be to you,”] named after a canticle written by Saint Francis, the Pope says, “I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.”

Unlike previous encyclicals, this one is directed not to Catholics alone, but to everyone, regardless of religion. “Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet,” he writes, proposing “to enter into discussion with everyone regarding our common home.”

“I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

That said, the Pope makes a case for phasing out fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases responsible for raising the planetary temperature.

He writes, “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy.”

In another part of the encyclical he writes, “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

The Pope places responsibility for correcting the climate crisis at the feet of the industrialized nations. He quotes the bishops of Bolivia, who stated, “The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.”

“Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention,” the Pope writes.

The Pope includes governance of the oceans in his concern for the planet, saying, “The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges. What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons.'”

The Pope says his aim “is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. 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, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world,” he warns.

“The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”

“The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. … We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity.”

Pope Francis calls on people to pressure their politicians for change.

President Barack Obama says he is in agreement with the Pope, especially with respect to climate change.

“I welcome His Holiness Pope Francis’s encyclical, and deeply admire the Pope’s decision to make the case – clearly, powerfully, and with the full moral authority of his position – for action on global climate change,” said the President today.

“As Pope Francis so eloquently stated this morning, we have a profound responsibility to protect our children, and our children’s children, from the damaging impacts of climate change. I believe the United States must be a leader in this effort, which is why I am committed to taking bold actions at home and abroad to cut carbon pollution, to increase clean energy and energy efficiency, to build resilience in vulnerable communities, and to encourage responsible stewardship of our natural resources.”

Commenting on the Pope’s other major theme, Obama said, “We must also protect the world’s poor, who have done the least to contribute to this looming crisis and stand to lose the most if we fail to avert it.”

Obama said he looks forward to discussing these issues with Pope Francis when he visits the White House in September.

“And as we prepare for global climate negotiations in Paris this December, it is my hope that all world leaders, and all God’s children, will reflect on Pope Francis’s call to come together to care for our common home,” said the President.

Raymond Bradley, professor of geosciences and director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said, “Dealing with global warming and related environmental problems is fundamentally a moral and ethical issue. Pope Francis urges those who focus on short-term political agendas to step back and consider their broader responsibilities. We can only hope (or pray) that those in the Congress who are currently obstructing meaningful action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take the Pope’s message to heart.”

But Congressional Republicans, who are in control of both houses, dismissed the Pope’s views.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, is also a Catholic who invited the pontiff to address Congress later this year. “I respect his right to speak out on these important issues,” Boehner said, but he would not commit to legislative action on climate or other environmental issues.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, is a Presbyterian and a climate change skeptic. He told “The Hill,” he is “concerned” that the encyclical “will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history.”

“Climate science is not settled,” Inhofe insisted.

Rick Santorum, a declared 2016 presidential candidate and a practicing Catholic, said, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”

Democrats generally are in greater accord with the Pope’s message.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a Catholic, said, “The Pope’s powerful encyclical calls for a common response to the critical threat climate change poses to our common home. His plea for all religions to work together reflects the urgency of the challenge.”

“The devastating impacts of climate change – like heat waves, damaging floods, coastal sea level rise and historic droughts – are already taking place, threatening the habitat all humans and other creatures depend on to survive,” warned Kerry. “We have a responsibility to meet this challenge and prevent the worst impacts.”

“We have the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed science to show us what is causing this problem, and we are equipped with the tools and resources to begin solving it,” Kerry said, adding, “Engagement on this issue from a wide range of voices is all the more important as we strive to reach a global climate agreement this December in Paris.”

In a joint statement, the all-Democratic House Sustainable Energy and Environmental Coalition, SEEC, said, “For those unmoved by the science of climate change, we hope that Pope Francis’ encyclical demonstrates the virtue and moral imperative for action. … The time to act on climate is now, and failure to do so will further damage the planet, its people, and our principles.”

SEEC Member Congressman Ted Lieu is a California Democrat, a Catholic, a veteran and an officer in the Air Force reserves. He said he was elected to the United States Congress “to help tackle climate change,” and found the Pope’s position on climate inspiring. “Pope Francis has courageously stood up not only for the earth and the environment, but the poorest and most vulnerable among us who are most affected by climate change.”

SEEC Member Congressman Raul Grijalva is an Arizona Democrat and a Catholic. “Pope Francis’ call for action, reflection and honesty transcends politics and shouldn’t be treated as just another piece of the partisan news cycle,” he said. “It should be heeded and taken to heart, especially by those who profit from environmental damage and human suffering. Our actions and inactions have damaged the lives of billions of people, especially those who have little political or economic power to defend themselves, and Pope Francis is right to put the focus on them.”

Bishops and priests around the world are expected to lead discussions on the encyclical in services this coming Sunday.

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