Pope Francis, the climate activist

Pia Ranada
The world may hear more about the Pope's coming encyclical on climate change when he visits Tacloban City this January

MANILA, Philippines – Many are familiar with Pope Francis’ love for the poor and his commitment to a simple lifestyle, but did you know that he is also a devoted activist for climate change awareness and a passionate environmentalist?

In fact, the leader of the Catholic Church has promised that his first encyclical will be about climate change. Vatican insiders say it could be released early this year, in time to influence an important international climate change conference to be held in Paris in December 2015.  

It’s no coincidence that one of the Pope’s first travels for the year will be to the Philippines, recently ranked the country most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. He’ll be making a visit to Tacloban City, ground zero of Super Typhoon Haiyan, said to be one of the strongest storms to make landfall. 

In a “mini-encyclical” he delivered last October 28 at the World Meeting of Popular Movements, he blamed global warming and the “plunder of nature” to an excessive economic system centered on the “god of money.” 

The Pope highlighted that, ironically, those who bear the brunt of ecological devastation are those at the fringes of such an economy.

“Climate change, the loss of bio-diversity, deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness, and you are the ones who suffer most, the humble, those who live near coasts in precarious dwellings or who are so vulnerable economically that, in the face of a natural disaster, lose everything,” he said. 

DEADLY CLIMATE. Super Typhoon Haiyan claimed the lives of more than 6,300 in November 2013

The speech, one of the longest in Pope Francis’ papacy (6 pages long, single-spaced), shows his deep concern for the topic.

But you need not look farther than his name to know where his soft spot lies. Among the Leos, John Pauls and Piuses, this Pope took on the name of nature-loving St Francis of Assisi. 

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences said to be close to the Pope told Catholic news site The Tablet, “The Pope is very aware that the consequences of climate change affect all people, but especially the poor. This is the moral consequence, the moral imperative.” 

The Pope’s visit to the Philippines this month is not the first time he’s shown the spotlight on the country in the context of the environment. In the most important document of his papacy, he quoted Philippine bishops to illustrate how environmental degradation is a “painful disfigurement.”

“Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines,” he says in section 215 of Evangelii Gaudium.

He then quotes a Pastoral Letter written by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines: “God intended this land for us, his special creatures, but not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland…How can fish swim in sewers like the Pasig and so many more rivers which we have polluted? Who has turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?”

Climate and social justice

A papal encyclical is a rare document that could wield great influence on the world. Technically defined as a the Pope’s letter to bishops and Catholic churches all over the world, it not only defines papacies but can inspire revolutions.

‘Climate change is about social justice. A Church committed to defend and serve the poor must work to find solutions that will have its greatest impact on the poorest countries, communities and families.’

– Tony La Viña, environmental lawyer

 

Some world-changing encyclicals from previous popes include Redemptor Hominis by Pope John Paul II, in which he confronted the ideology of communism, and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in which he tackled the ills of industrialization and urbanization. 

When Pope Francis publishes his encyclical on climate change, it will be sent to the 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests with the goal of reaching all of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. 

Climate change experts and environmentalists in the Philippines are heartened by the Pope’s eagerness to get involved with an issue often deemed too complicated or abstract by most people. (READ: What PH did about climate change in 2014)

Jesuit priest, scientist and Ateneo de Manila president Fr Jett Villarin, who has joined the Pope in calling climate change a moral issue, looks forward to the encyclical.

“Surely we welcome this as this would firm up the theological, ethical and spiritual foundation of our action to protect the planet,” he told Rappler. 

Environmental lawyer and  spokesman of the Philippine delegation to the UN climate change talks Tony La Viña called the Pope’s concern for climate change “downright inspiring.”

“Climate change is about social justice. A Church committed to defend and serve the poor must work to find solutions that will have its greatest impact on the poorest countries, communities and families,” he told Rappler.

MORAL IMPERATIVE. Scientists say the impacts of climate change could cause more deaths, displacement and hunger. Photo by EPA/Dennis Sabangan

‘The right speech, at the right time’

Will a papal encyclical have any chance of influencing the tension-fraught climate negotiations?

The upcoming Paris conference is meant to end more than 20 years of talks, hopefully with a legally-binding, global commitment to cut down on carbon emissions. 

La Viña says it can.

“The value of the encyclical will probably be on the ethical aspects of climate change. Understanding personal and social responsibility for overcoming climate change is key to be able to address it effectively.” 

Pope Francis’ voice, which has strongly championed for the rights of the poor and marginalized, can “put into focus the necessary perspective to enable Parties to look past politics and put our survival and the integrity of creation at the center of the whole process,” said Aksyon Klima national coordinator Voltaire Alferez.

Other than contributing to ideas to the negotiations, the encyclical could also give encouragement to negotiators and activists frustrated with the talks and to those who directly suffer from impacts of a changing climate: typhoon victims, drought victims, climate refugees. 

“The right statement and speech at the right time can have a huge impact,” said La Viña.”

In fact, La Viña hopes the Pope himself will attend the Paris conference during its second week, when stalemates usually arise to threaten the progress of the talks. 

“I don’t think we need another statement that will embarrass or shame governments. But a word of encouragement – an appeal to our common humanity and climate justice, that would make a difference.” – Rappler.com

Join Rappler in a 100-day countdown to Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines: a journey from the Vatican to Tacloban. Tweet us your thoughts using the hashtag #PopeFrancisPH!

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.