Pope Calls For Change to Combat Environmental Destruction

Global church leader highlights negative effects on the poor.


Pope Francis today called for personal and systemic change for the sake of the environment. The 184-page encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” (“Praise Be to You”), addresses the political, economic, and personal factors contributing to environmental degradation, including the disproportionate effect it has on the most vulnerable. The pontiff claims that not only is humanity’s participation in environmental destruction a dangerous misinterpretation of its relationship with creation, it’s a form of violence against the poor.

An encyclical is a circular letter, traditionally released to an audience of Bishops, which is the highest form of teaching a pope delivers interpreting church doctrine and guiding church leaders. Priests and bishops around the world are expected to discuss the content of the letter with their congregations in the coming weeks. The encyclical released today, however, addresses “every person living on this planet” with the purpose of engaging in “dialogue with all people about our common home.” Pope Francis claims, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”

The Pope’s letter has several concurrent themes: supporting the scientific findings that climate change is largely caused by human activity; identifying the failures in economics, technology, and politics to protect the environment; and pointing out that environmental degradation has the biggest effect on the world’s poor. Through all these themes, Pope Francis, often citing his predecessors, delivers theological foundations for transforming the way humanity see its relationship to the environment and each other.

Scientists and others delivering warnings about the long-term impact of humanity’s consumption of natural resources and fossil fuels welcome the moral dimension Pope Francis’s words add to the dialogue. The pontiff delivers a clear call for nations to take action immediately and has expressed hope that the release of this document motivates participants at a United Nations climate change summit this December in Paris.

Others have criticized the Pope for writing about policy and economics, which they claim is outside the purview of the church, though his theme of economic justice and criticisms of capitalism are not new. Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina, is the first pope to come from the Southern Hemisphere. During his tenure as Bishop of Buenos Aires he quadrupled the number of priests working in the slums.

Declaring that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” Pope Francis identifies it as one the most pressing problems facing humanity today. He claims “obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”

Furthermore, Pope Francis cites the reckless pursuit of profits and misplaced faith in the free market to end hunger and poverty. He claims the youth of the world “wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

The Pope’s letter points out that the effects of global warming have significant repercussions in the poorest regions, particularly Africa, whose residents rely heavily on subsistence farming. It states “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: ‘Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.’” He adds “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.”

The Pope identifies the lack of clean water available to the poor as an example of injustice borne of ecological destruction.

Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life… access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. [emphasis original]

Globally, nearly 1 in 9 people (nearly 750 million) live without access to safe water and 2.5 billion (1 in 3) live without improved sanitation. Lack of safe water and sanitation contributes to a devastating cycle of poverty. It leads to preventable water-borne diseases like diarrhea, increases rates of child mortality, exacerbates gender inequality, inhibits education and economic growth, and contributes to violent conflict. Experts have even implicated a lack of safe water in the current conflict in Syria.

While extreme weather events like historic droughts are often attributed (entirely or partially) to climate change, the rural poor of the world live on a razor’s edge of survival, where even small changes can have devastating impact.

Unlike the residents of California, where a severe drought is continuing in its fourth year, people living in less developed nations do not have the infrastructure or reserves to provide a cushion between a harsh environment and their livelihood. While food bills may be rising in the US, the world’s impoverished communities have much more at stake. A weak rainy season means entire villages must choose between watching some of their livestock and crops die (their only sustenance and wealth) or relocating to another area.

Justin Narducci, President/CEO of Lifewater International, a non-profit organization fighting water poverty in Africa and Asia says, “The Pope has stated what community development workers have sensed for a very long time. Arid regions are expanding further than their previous footprint. Rainy seasons are less predictable than they once were. Flooding is more prevalent. Crop yields are lower.” Narducci adds, “Whether or not you agree with the science or the politics of this discussion, the truth is our decisions have a global impact in the lives of our vulnerable neighbors.”

The encyclical includes several calls to action for individuals, including recognizing the connectedness of the environment to human flourishing, pressuring political and business leaders to consider the well-being of all people, and changing individual lifestyles to abandon excessive consumption and indifference toward the earth and the poor. Pope Francis claims that “all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good.”

“Laudato Si” ends with two prayers, concluding:

God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight. Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out. O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty. Praise be to you! Amen.

Lifewater International is a non-profit Christian water development organization dedicated to effectively serving vulnerable children and families by partnering with underserved communities to overcome water poverty. With experience in more than 40 countries since 1977, Lifewater serves people of all faiths, focusing on contextually appropriate water sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) development. For more information, contact Christine Zurbach ( or visit Lifewater International is based in San Luis Obispo, CA.

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