Climate Change: Pope Francis’s Encyclical and the Dominion of Religion

by Vinay Lal

“Caring for Our Common Home”; artwork courtesy

The thinking person, as Walter Benjamin had occasion to remark, appears to experience crisis at every juncture of her or his life. How can this not be so if one were to experience the pain of someone else as one’s own? How can this not be so when, amidst growing stockpiles of food in many countries, millions continue to suffer from malnutrition, and the lengthening shadows of poverty give lie to the pious promises and pompous proclamations by the world’s leaders over the last several decades that humanity is determined to achieve victory in its quest to eradicate poverty? With war, violence, disease, and the myriad manifestations of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination which man’s ingenuity has wrought all around us, how might a person not be experiencing crisis? One foundation after another—whether it be named after Bill and Melinda Gates, the Clintons, Ford, Rockefeller, or other tycoons—has claimed to have helped “millions” of people around the world, but the crises appear to be multiplying.

There is, yet, a larger crisis that engulfs us all, even those who are sheltered from the cruel afflictions to which a good portion of humankind is still subject, especially in the global South. Pope Francis, singularly among world leaders, has dared to address this crisis that overwhelms all others in his recently released encyclical Laudato si’ (Praise Be to You), which poignantly sets the tone for a conversation that ought to engage the entire world with its declaration at the outset that the subject of his letter is “the care for our common home.”

Over the last few years, a consensus has slowly been emerging among members of the scientific community that climate change is presently taking place at a rate which is unprecedented in comparison with the natural climate change cycles that have characterized our earth in the course of the last half a million years; moreover, as successive Assessment Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have affirmed, global warming is, to an overwhelming degree, the consequence of human activity. IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) suggested that scientists were reasonably certain in their finding that global warming had been produced by the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere owing to the massive burning of fossil fuels, the industrialized use of animal stocks, and significant changes in land use.

The recently issued Fifth Assessment Report (2013) describes the environmental risks in even more unequivocal language: “It is extremely likely (95-100%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Scientists and increasingly other commentators—various practitioners of the social sciences, journalists, and policy makers—are now inclined to the view that this anthropogenic climate change is of such a magnitude that we might reasonably speak of a new geological epoch, defined by the action of humans, and that the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen termed the “Anthropocene”. Signs of record temperatures in much of the global North, intense heat waves and droughts in Australia, melting glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range, cyclones of increasing ferocity, rising sea levels, and massive flooding began to proliferate a decade ago and could no longer be ignored. Speaking just before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the chief scientific adviser to the UK government was bold enough to hazard the view that climate change poses a greater threat than does terrorism to the ability of humans to live safely.

The Pope has, with his eloquently and passionately argued encyclical, justly intervened in a matter which cannot and must not be left only to the jurisdiction of scientists and policy makers. It is, in the first instance, notable that Francis speaks not so much of “global warming” as of “climate change”, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Neither term was part of the global vocabulary until the 1970s. The geochemist Wallace S. Broecker warned, in a 1975 piece entitled “Climate Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” that the complacency about the warming effect of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of chemical fuels was not warranted. The term “global warming” is less encompassing than “climate change” and refers to the increase in the earth’s average surface temperature as a consequence of rising levels of greenhouse gases. The NASA scientist James E. Hansen is credited with having made “global warming” a widely known term in his 1988 testimony before Congress when he asserted that scientists could “ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.” Pope Francis is astute in directing his attention at climate change, recognizing that the environmental catastrophes which are upon us take myriad forms and have repercussions which extend to the entire question of the future of all species and the moral implications of present human conduct. Not only is climate change a palpable reality, but there has been at work for some time also a change in the climate of thought, feeling, and opinion about humankind being brought to the brink of ecological, social, and moral devastation.

Beginning, as Francis does, with the claim that “climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” it is not surprising, and is indeed heartening, that his letter is attentive to the grave and pervasive inequalities between countries. “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” the encyclical states, and Francis adds that “in different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.” Francis recommends that the developed countries “help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

Not many have dared to suggest that equality cannot be gained only by attempting to raise the standard of living in the countries that comprise the global South; those who are rich, wherever they may be, will surely have to curtail their extraordinary levels of consumption. Pope Francis goes on to offer an indictment of the shallow market-based solutions proffered by the economists, and suggests with considerable astuteness that “carbon credits” should be rejected, as they “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” The Pope’s remarks prompted Jeb Bush, at that time a Presidential “hopeful”, to tell his adoring audience that “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”

Francis rightly rejects the view that the question of climate change must be left only to environmentalists, economists, and policy makers. As I have argued at some length in a recent article, “Climate Change: Insights from Hinduism”, in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (June 2015)—and I shall in the remaining part of this review be drawing entirely upon my article, which is a contribution to a roundtable discussion on climate change and religion—students of religion must be particularly sensitive to what climate change portends for the future of humankind and all of creation. In a world beset by extraordinary calamities, it is difficult for most people to turn their attention to something called climate change. But it is not only those who are devastated by war, sexual violence, grave civil unrest, disease, a deadly virus, or a natural calamity such as an earthquake who see themselves as without the luxury to ruminate over the afflictions engendered by climate change. Suffering is in the here and now; the privations that are effects of climate change, such as they are understood, happen—or are likely to happen—elsewhere, at a remote distance, and to others. No doubt some people are aware that melting glaciers and rising temperatures have already wrought havoc, but nevertheless those who issue warnings about the calamitous consequences of climate change are unable to derive much emotional or spiritual purchase from arguments that invoke the future of our children, grandchildren, and generations to come when they speak solely or predominantly in the language of science.

More so than other practitioners of other disciplines and areas of inquiry, students of religion ought to consider the question of climate change their special provenance. In many respects, religious studies scholars are especially equipped to address the social, cultural, and ethical implications of climate change. First, the notion of an afterlife, howsoever it may be interpreted, occupies a critical space in every religion: the religious sensibility is one that insists not only on the imperative of ethical conduct in the present, but also on the persistence of good outcomes of such conduct in the long run. Religion helps us to think of different registers of temporality and it holds up the future as a mode and space of being that is of as much critical importance as the present; similarly, the ecological awareness that proponents of climate change seek to elicit in every person rests in part on the idea that proper custodianship of the earth will yield rich dividends for those who are to follow us.

Secondly, there is another idiom of temporality in which the student of religion, or more particularly of Hinduism, can hope to render understandable an argument about the reality of climate change. As the scholar of religion, Harold Coward, reminds us, “it took all of human history up to the early 1800s for the earth’s population to reach one billion. It took 130 years to add the second billion, 30 years to add the third, 15 years to add the fourth, and 12 years to add the fifth.” A like argument may be advanced apropos of climate change: the first several decades of the industrial revolution led to greater accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the preceding tens of thousands of years, and it is quite likely that the last two decades—which have seen not only increased levels of consumption in most of the major economies, but exponential growth in China and a substantial increase of the middle class in India, Brazil, and elsewhere—have contributed as much to global warming as the preceding century. However, what is equally germane is that a phrase such as “all of human history up to the early 1800s” evokes gargantuan periods of time—a notion that is remote to ordinary human experience but rather more readily available to the practitioners of Hinduism habituated to the idea of the Yugas, or the four ages through which human history is said to pass: Satya Yuga, (spanning 1,728,000 years); Treta Yuga (1,296,000 years); Dwapara Yuga (864,000 years); and Kali Yuga (432,000 years). The point here is that even if the scientific evidence for climate change is compelling, the very idea of climate change also compels us to think of strikingly varying temporalities—the eons of time that have passed and the eons of time well into the future. Hinduism’s mytho-geological conception of time immensely facilitates such leaps of imagination.

Thirdly, whatever the inclination of adherents of each religion to prize their own faith as the correct and wholly distinct path to emancipation, the religious-minded generally recognize that every religion affirms the oneness of humankind. Arguments that draw attention to the precariousness of human existence, an existence rendered all the more fragile by widespread, devastating, and often unpredictable changes in nature that can be explicitly traced to human activity, are likewise predicated on the idea that climate change provides yet another affirmation of the oneness of existence. The common maladies that afflict the poor, the marginalized, and the disempowered, mainly in the global South and certain pockets of the affluent North, are after all not our maladies, even if activists, social workers, and idealists choose to alleviate their suffering and occasionally even partake in it as the most meaningful gesture of solidarity. Yet what does the recognition of climate change entail if not precisely the notion that there are certain forms of suffering that are indivisible, that the problems of one might well be the problems of all? If religion may be defined as an attempt to teach us how we can share in the suffering of others, can it not be said that awareness of climate change leads to the same outcome?

Though Pope Francis did not draw upon any Hindu texts, his encyclical displays the same ecumenism that he would like to see characterized in human relations and in the dialogue between nations rich and poor. He draws, quite expectedly, upon the Bible, the teachings of St. Francis, the insights of Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and his two most recent papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI; but also upon the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, and such international conventions as the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development (2002). Francis’s encyclical seeks to ground humans so that they may once again become sensitive to the earth, sky, air, water and the dust to which everything returns.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Vinay Lal is Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA. He writes widely on the history and culture of colonial and modern India, especially Indian cinema, historiography, the politics of world history, global politics, contemporary American politics, and the life and thought of Mohandas Gandhi. He is the author or editor of over fifteen books. His exceptional blog site gives a full biography, and list of his publications, and is regularly updated with a wealth of articles on India and Gandhi. Lal also has a YouTube channel featuring an excellent lecture series on Gandhi’s moral and political thought, the best such teaching aide we’ve seen on the web.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi