What makes Pope Francis and his 187-page encyclical so radical isn’t just his call to urgently tackle climate change. It’s the fact he openly and unashamedly goes against the grain of dominant social, economic and environment policies.
While the Argentina-born pope is a very humble person whose vision is of a “poor church for the poor”, he seems increasingly determined to play a central role on the world stage. Untainted by the realities of government and the greed of big business, he is perhaps the only major figure who can legitimately confront the world’s economic and political elites in the way he has.
However his radical message, a draft of which was leaked to the Italian magazine L’Espresso, potentially puts him on a confrontation course with global powerbrokers and leaders of national governments, international institutions and multinational corporations.
The backlash has begun even before the encyclical has been officially published. US presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Catholic, feels the pope should stay out of the climate debate, joining other Republicans, fossil fuel lobbyists and climate denier think-tanks in seeking to discredit Pope Francis’s intervention.
What makes the pope so radical?
There a several meanings of the word “radical” that can be applied to the Pope and in particular his forthcoming encyclical.
First, radical can be understood as going back to the roots (from Latin radix, root). The majority of Catholics live in the Global South; in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Francis is the first pope from the Global South, and naming himself in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, “a man of poverty and peace who loved nature and animals”, signalled to the world a commitment to going back to the roots of human existence.
The pope knows the plight of the majority world. Before he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was a priest in the vast, poor neighbourhoods, the villas miserias or slums, of Argentina’s capital.
Improving the lives of slum dwellers and addressing climate change is, for Pope Francis, one and the same thing. Both require tackling the structural, root causes of inequality, injustice, poverty and environmental degradation.
For example, his encyclical is expected to say:
While the quality of available water steadily worsens, in some places there are advances to privatise this scarce resource, transforming it into a commodity subject to market forces. In fact, access to safe drinking water is a fundamental and universal human right because it determines the survival of people. (p. 26; all quotes are my own translations from the L'Espresso draft)
This stands in stark contrast to, for example, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, the world’s largest food and bottled water company, who thinks water is a normal commodity with a market value, and not a human right. Nestlé is far from unusual. Its stance is backed up by the official water privatisation policies of the World Bank, IMF and other international institutions.
In fact, the encyclical is a radical – for a pope and international leader, unprecedented – attack on the logic of the market and consumerism, which has been expanded into all spheres of life.
The leaked document states:
Since the market tends to create a mechanism for compulsive consumerism, people end up being overwhelmed by the vortex of purchases and unnecessary expenses. This obsessive consumerism … makes everyone believe that they are free … when in fact those with the freedom are those that are part of the minority who holds the economic and financial power. (p. 155-156)
The pope rejects market fundamentalism, instead arguing that “the market alone does not ensure human development and social inclusion.”
In the same way, he warns us of the brave new world of carbon markets such as the EU Emissions Trading System and the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which have been created to reduce the world’s carbon emissions.
The encyclical draft states:
The strategy of buying “carbon credits” can give rise to a new form of speculation and would not help to reduce the overall emission of polluting gases. This system seems to be a quick and easy solution, with the appearance of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way implies a radical change that can rise to the occasion. Indeed, it may become a device that supports super-consumption in some countries and sectors. (p. 132)
Will he make any difference?
Pope Francis has already angered conservative Catholics in the US by clearly stating in the draft (p.22) that “climate change is a problem with serious implications for global environmental, social and economic distribution and policy, being one of the main current challenges for humanity.”
While the pope is not a politician – or maybe precisely because he is not one – he commands high moral and ethical authority that goes beyond traditional partisan lines. His encyclical speaks truth to power, and he might be the only person with both the clout and the desire to meaningfully deliver a message like this:
Many of those who hold more resources and economic or political power seem to focus especially on masking problems or hiding the symptoms, seeking only to reduce some negative impacts of climate change. But many signs indicate that these effects will become worse if we continue with current patterns of production and consumption. Therefore it has become urgent and compelling to adopt policies in the coming years so that the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases is reduced drastically, for example, by replacing fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources. (p.24)
The bosses of Shell, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies will not like this message, as it threatens their fundamental business model, and it also stands in contrast to the underwhelming ambitions of the G7 leaders who recently pledged to phase out fossil fuels only by 2100.
The time for bold, radical action on the environment as well as poverty eradication has come. This seems to be Pope Francis’ message: “The same logic that makes it difficult to take drastic action to reverse the trend of global warming is one that does not allow us to achieve the goal of eradicating poverty.”
We need to think beyond the current, taken-for-granted logic that believes only markets and consumerism can solve the world’s social and environmental problems. The pope himself believes the situation is so grave that only a new, “true world political authority” will be able to address these problems.
Steffen Böhm has received funding from: Economic and Social Research Council, British Academy, Swedish Energy Agency, East of England Cooperative Society and Green Light Trust.
Authors: The Conversation