Saving the environment through dialogue and transparency

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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The world will continue on “the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us,” says Pope Francis, unless everyone works together to find solutions to the environmental crisis through dialogue and transparency. This dialogue must occur on the local, national and international level, and should include people from business, politics, science, religion and the environmental movements, as well as ordinary people who lives will be affected.  

In the first four chapters of his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reviews what scientists tell us is happening to the environment, reflects on what the Bible tells us about creation, and points his finger at greed and a consumption-based economy as the causes of the environmental crisis. In chapter 5, he discusses how we should respond to the crisis.

Francis is the first to admit that the church does not have concrete solutions to the crisis facing the world. “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” he writes. “But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Francis believes that “interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (his emphasis).

He is not impressed by the global efforts so far. Pope Francis acknowledges that the world community has made progress through the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes, the Convention on international trade in endangered species, and the Vienna Convention on protecting the ozone layer.

But the international community has made little progress in protecting biodiversity, stopping desertification, or reducing greenhouse gasses because of a “lack of political will.” What agreements have been made “have been poorly implemented.” Enforceable international agreements and global regulatory norms are needed that “impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions.”

He calls for the development of a global consensus that would lead “to planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.”

Specifically, he says that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

He complains that some strategies for lowering greenhouse gases would risk imposing the costs on countries with few resources. Rather, he quotes the Bolivian bishops, “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.” These countries in fact owe a “carbon debt” to the rest of the world.

Francis singles out one solution for criticism in his encyclical -- carbon credits, whereby business could buy the right to pollute from companies that have reduced pollution levels in excess of what is required by law. Francis believes that this could “lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.” I think he is correct, but this is clearly a prudential judgment about which people could disagree.

Francis argues that poor nations need help through the technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources. But they also have to work to eliminate extreme poverty and promote social development of their people. They “need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.”

In fact, Francis believes that “the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” He observes that the power of nation states has been weakened and “the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tends to prevail over the political.”

Francis agrees with Pope Benedict who wrote in Caritas in Veritate that there is need for a world political order “to manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration.”

Such a world authority would be anathema to many Americans who see even a weak United Nations as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

But Francis does not put all the onus on a world authority; he calls for greater attention to the environment by local and national authorities which have a “responsibility for planning, coordination, oversight and enforcement within their respective borders.” This would include setting down “rules for admissible conduct in the light of the common good.”

The problem he sees is that politics is “concerned with immediate results” and “is driven to produce short-term growth.” Politicians are “are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment.” Plus there is the problem of corruption.

Francis is a fan of cooperatives because “they are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.” He see this mentality especially in indigenous peoples.

Francis acknowledges that there is “no uniform recipes” that will fit the needs of all countries or regions, but he believes all should promote energy conservation and maximum energy efficiency. This might involve “removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting, improving transport systems, and encouraging the construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing their energy consumption and levels of pollution.”

Pope Francis also wants to promote recycling and sustainable agriculture.

All of this will require courage on the part of politicians who “will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics.”

Transparency is an essential element in the dialogue to find better ways of preserving the environment, according to the pope, especially transparency in the assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects. Corruption, on the other hand, conceals “the actual environmental impact of a given project” and produces “specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.”

What is needed is environmental impact assessments that are “interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.” Only when scientific and political discussions are imbued with honesty and truth can all the different stakeholders reach a consensus on the alternatives available. “The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information.”

Francis calls for a thorough investigation and discussion of any proposed venture. “What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how?”

If a study finds that “serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified.” He recognizes that sometimes the evidence is disputable. In such cases, the burden of proof should be on the projects promoters “to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.”

The bottom line for Francis is that “profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account.” Francis believes that “Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.” Rather they should be in dialogue for the common good.

He complains that this did not happen during the recent banking crisis. “Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system.” The response to the crisis “did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”

Nor does Francis believe that the environmental protection can assured by simply calculating costs and benefits and leaving solutions to market forces. “We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.” He believes that it is unrealistic to “hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations.”

On the contrary, “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention,” he writes. “Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.”

Francis believes that the economic argument is in fact on his side. “Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term,” he writes. “If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable.”

But what he would really like to see is a change from an excessive technological investment in consumption to greater investment in resolving urgent problems facing the human family. He also believes that we need “to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.” The behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy is unsustainable, “while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity.” As a result, “the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

Francis is calling for new models of global development that redefine our notion of progress. “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.”

Those who want to maximize profits do not calculate “the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution.” Profits are increased by ignoring externalities, the costs imposed on others including future generations. This is why we need “a politics which is farsighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.” But corruption and short-sightedness cripples politics so that it fails to enact sound public policy and fulfill its responsibilities.

Finally, Pope Francis calls for a dialogue between religion and science. He does not believe that science can provide a complete explanation of life since the scientific methodology leaves little room “for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things.”

For those who put their faith in technology, he says, “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.”

At the same time, he says believers must acknowledge that “a mistaken understanding of our own principles has at times led us to justify mistreating nature, to exercise tyranny over creation, to engage in war, injustice and acts of violence.”

Solutions will come only though dialogue “for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity,” he writes. “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which requires patience, self-discipline and generosity.”

“Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history,” he writes, “nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.”

This is the fifth of a series of columns on the chapters of Laudato Si’. The first chapter was examined in “Pope Francis: 'Facts are more important than ideas.'” The second chapter was examined in "Revelation and creation: respecting and sharing God’s gift​." The third chapter was examined in "Pope Francis: Technology + greed = disaster​." The fourth was examined in "Integral ecology: everything is connected​."

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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Like what you're reading? Learn more about our eBook collection of Thomas Reese's writings on the encyclical: Caring for Our Common Home: A Readers’ Guide and Commentary on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment.

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