I can’t claim to have read all 246 paragraphs of Pope Francis’s Encyclical On Care for our Common Home but I’ve read enough extracts and summaries to conclude that his tome could prove an imortant juncture in the climate change debate.
To me, the Encyclical feels significant for two reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it draws the attention of a global audience to our abject failure to tackle climate change; but more importantly it represents a mainstream voice championing a narrative that to date has been characterised as unorthodox, or worse still, hairbrained and irrational.
We live in a world where international economic and political discussions almost exclusively legitimise existing economic and political models and try to find solutions to global problems within the confines of these models. And so it is the case with climate change, which, if you listen to our world leaders, can be readily solved with a simple techno-economic fix.
This allegiance to a single, dominant narrative is not only a trait of institutions and political parties, of both the traditional left and right, but also of environmental NGOs many of which find themselves developing strategies to combat climate change that sit comfortably within the capitalist model and which give businesses a reason to act that is rooted in the financial rather than moral imperative.
Whether or not you agree with the Pope’s prognosis is irrelevant, the important point is that it provides a vision for tackling the climate crisis that challenges this dominant narrative thus creating the opportunity to have a debate about the most appropriate pathway towards sustainable development.
Part of the problem with the climate change movement is that it is too easily characterised as a radical ‘green’ vision, rooted in socialist ideals that have no place in today’s developed societies. Just last week I attended a climate march in London that was notable for the lack of diversity among the activists who were almost exclusively white, middle class and angry. For all its worthiness, the grass roots climate movement will not achieve real traction until it can reach out beyond its core constituency to people for whom 'green' concerns do not rank high on their list of priorities.
The strength of the Encyclical is that it presents an alternative vision that should be appealing to the many, not the few; a vision of a system that can lift people out of poverty, reduce inequalities, improve people’s quality of life whist at the same time protecting and preserving nature.
In it, the Pope challenges a host of accepted wisdoms, like the collective faith in free-market economics to solve environmental problems; the focus on population growth rather than over-consumption; and our myopic politics that is obsessed with short-term economic growth. Perhaps most radically of all, he dares to question the desirability of the pursuit of economic growth itself.
The Encyclical has naturally been subject to a fair amount of denunciation from those questioning the authority of the Pope to speak on matters of the environment and others who simply reject his vision. This is to be expected; but if his intervention means the climate debate can be broadened from the confines of its current neoliberal framing, Pope Francis’s work here will be done.