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Benedict XVI and climate change

What more should the Pope say about poverty and climate change?

by Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R.*

Pope Benedict is no sceptic about climate change. In numerous speeches and writings, he has been warning of the need to protect the earth from environmental damage so that it will offer a lasting home for all the generations to come. He particularly urged vigorous action during the Copenhagen conference to avert the threats from disastrous changes in weather patterns.
Exit onlyBut Benedict’s message is barely audible in Australia at least, where the coal industry is immensely important for the Australian economy, and very powerful politically and in sections of the media.
It has taken Benedict some time since becoming Pope to focus more sharply on the great new social issues of our day, the battle against global hunger and poverty being coordinated in part through the Millennium Development Goals, and the problems arising from global warming.
I would suggest that the Pope has two major problems in communicating his message. First, he lacks journalistic expertise to make his documents more readable. Even priests and development specialists are having difficulty understanding his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, which deals with these burning issues.
And secondly, he needs in my view to make clear the message that the world can manage these crises. Yes, the problems are unprecedented, but we have enormous resources and wealth to bring to the task. Fear and panic can paralyse people from taking effective action. There is no need for despair.
The Pope needs not just to urge greater food production, but to highlight specialist opinions about the great capacity we still have to increase food security at higher levels of nutrition for the expected increase in world population.
He could also draw from experts like the former president of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, in his recent study, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, that we can generate vast financial resources not only to help poorer countries address climate change, but also to reinvigorate the global campaign to eliminate hunger and the worst forms of poverty in line with the Millennium Development Goals. We can do both.
Stern writes that to help poorer countries address the consequences of climate change, richer countries will need to provide about $130 billion a year over the next decade. This is a significant amount, but it represents only about 1 per cent of the government expenditure of richer countries, and only about a tenth of what they spend on the military. In other words, it can be done relatively easily, especially if the world can reduce military spending and channel the money into development (pp. 178-79).

It is quite implausible that Benedict would have included such views on social justice simply to placate his bureaucrats

In addition of course, the richer countries still need to provide the promised funding of 0.7% of their GDP for development assistance, which would amount to $300 billion a year, three times the current level of aid. If this seems too much, compare it with the tens of trillions of dollars richer nations have poured into their economies to bolster them against the global financial crisis.
The urgent message we need to spread is: “Yes, we can do this”. And the world can do it relatively quickly, with effort and determination of course, if we have the political will and leadership.
Pope Benedict XVIIn his World Day of Peace statement for 2010, the Pope has again highlighted the urgency of responding to climate change, declaring it one of the greatest moral challenges facing humanity. Not only does drastic climate change imperil global food production, but the resulting problems threaten to cascade through the energy crisis; increasing competition for resources, especially water; and rising sea levels immersing island states and the great food-producing river-deltas of the world.
Benedict writes: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?
“Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees’, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development.” (#4).

We cannot remain indifferent to what is happening around us, for the deterioration of any one part of the planet affects us all
- Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict calls for a new model of economic development, insisting that “Our present crises – be they economic, food-related, environmental or social – are ultimately also moral crises”. (#5). He urges richer people to adopt a more modest and frugal lifestyle, becoming more conscious not just of the environmental legacy for coming generations, but also of the struggle to eliminate hunger and poverty in poorer countries.
Reiterating themes from his recent social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he insists that protecting the environment against the “chilling prospects” of degradation must go hand in hand with promoting human development everywhere. “We cannot remain indifferent to what is happening around us, for the deterioration of any one part of the planet affects us all”. He urges “progressive disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons” (#11).

The Church has a responsibility towards creation
- Benedict XVI

Against powerful sectional interests intent on denying climate change, including politicians and media who would argue that the Church has no business involving itself in such matters, the Pope insists: “The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save the human race from the danger of self-destruction” (#12).
These are fighting words about issues we must confront in deadly earnest.


• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.