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Pope demands climate change action

Published 18/06/2015

Pope Francis said his encyclical was 'addressed to everyone', not just the world's 1.2 billion Catholics
Pope Francis said his encyclical was 'addressed to everyone', not just the world's 1.2 billion Catholics

The pope has issued a stark warning over the urgent need to tackle "extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems" in an eagerly-awaited message on the environment.

In the first papal encyclical Pope Francis has written, he said climate change was mostly down to human activity and policies were urgently needed to cut carbon emissions, such as by reducing fossil fuels and developing renewables.

People in wealthy countries need to change their unsustainable lifestyles, as exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and millions of tonnes of waste are being generated, making the Earth look more and more "like an immense pile of filth".

In a hard-hitting message on environmental degradation and poverty, the pontiff warned that "doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain", and that resource shortages could lead to new wars.

Setting out the moral case for action on the environment, the pope said climate change represented "one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day", and warned its worst impact would be felt in poorer countries.

"We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental," he warned.

The papal encyclical, a letter sent to 5,000 Catholic bishops worldwide, is published in five languages and the pontiff has said the document is "addressed to everyone", not just the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The pontiff has spoken before on the effects of climate change on people and nature but the encyclical comes ahead of a UN meeting to decide new "sustainable development goals" in September and crucial international talks aimed at securing a new global climate deal in Paris at the end of the year.

In the face of opposition from conservative climate sceptics in the US, including many Catholics, the pope spells out human responsibility for climate change.

"A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system," he writes.

"Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it."

Though he acknowledged other factors influencing the climate, he said: "A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity."

And he warned: "If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us."

He said: "There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy."

And he attacked the extreme consumerist lifestyle, warning: " We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.

"The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty."

He also spoke out against the destruction of the natural world by human beings, saying: "Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right."

In what will be seen as an attack on opponents of climate change action, the pope said previous failures of global meetings on the environment showed there were too many special interests, and economic interests ended up "trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected".

He criticised efforts to develop carbon trading schemes, with buying and selling of "carbon credits", warning they could lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

And he said: "Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most."

The papal encyclical has been widely welcomed by environmental groups and aid agencies, who described it as "game-changing" and inspiring, and raised hopes it would help push leaders to taking ambitious action on climate change and clean development.

Speaking at Our Lady & St Joseph's Catholic Primary School, in Poplar, east London, against the backdrop of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said one of the key messages of the document was asking "what kind of world we want to leave to those who come afterwards".

The pope's message challenged the idea that infinite material progress was possible, with more goods and more consumption, that "we have to have the latest phone", said the cardinal, who is head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

It called for an examination of conscience, asking people to look at their lifestyle, how they could make it simpler, and it challenged the idea of a dichotomy between either economic development to lift people out of poverty or protecting the environment.

"He rejects that alternative, saying the vision and technology is there for 'both/and'. Economic development is necessary to relieve poverty, but has to be properly understood and designed and it's possible to do so in a way that saves creation," the cardinal said.

Speaking the day after people from around the country converged on Parliament to lobby their MPs for action on climate change, including getting a new global deal on the issue and ending polluting coal-fired power, Cardinal Nichols said he wanted politicians to take those "concrete steps" that had been presented to them.

"I believe the Prime Minister has already committed the British Government to try to achieve those goals.

"What I would also hope is that the Prime Minister understands that this challenge takes us deeper than simply carbon emissions and into a discussion about the purposes of business, that asks about the functioning of global trade," he urged.

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