The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ #23
Last week, on October 4th, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the long-awaited companion to Laudato Si’
The new apostolic exhortation is titled Laudate Deum
, which means “praise God.” It is just six chapters and 73 paragraphs and is meant to be an extension of the 2015 Laudato Si’,
the encyclical that Pope Francis wrote on the care of our common home. Laudate Deum
is a letter to the people of God on the climate crisis and looks at what has happened in the last 8 years and what still needs to happen. The pope feels that our responses to the climate situation have not been adequate, while “the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”
The document is titled Laudate Deum
because we have to praise God. The pope says, “When human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies.”
The Letter mentions those who deny that carbon emissions are the cause for climate change; it condemns those who blame the problem on the world’s poor; it blames what is happening on economic greed and weak international politics, and challenges the idea that developing cleaner energy will cost jobs.
It is very difficult to look at our planet today and not see changes to our climate. It used to be that we spoke of “global warming”; indeed, the planet is warmer today than it was 50 years ago. Some people may not mind the warmer summers and winters, but let’s remember that’s not what global warming means. Global warming means that because the planet is warming, we will begin to experience extreme weather events
which is what we have seen these past years: more wild fires, more flooding; more droughts; hotter summers and colder winters. It’s probably more appropriate that we stop using the term “global warming” and start speaking about a climate crisis, climate emergency or simply, “extreme weather events.”
When I reflect with Pope Francis on the last eight years of what has been done and still needs to be done, I can't help to think of Midnight Oil's classic song of the 80's "Beds Are Burning
." The song says, "How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning?"
That song was written about the wild fires in Australia in 1987. Maybe most of us didn't realize it then, but this North American summer, 35 years later, it did feel like our beds were burning. Midnight Oil sang, "The time has come to say fair's fair, to pay the rent, to pay our share."
Not only was the song about environmental disaster but also about how it affects the poorest of the poor. In the 80's it was the Aboriginal communities in Australia. In 2023, it came very close to where I live.
I think Pope Francis with Laudate Deum
is giving us the same message. Our our earth is burning and the time has come for us to do something about it.
mentions “changes in climate” (#s 8, 24, 25, 26, 52, 169, 170, 172, 181) and mentions “warming of the climatic system,” making a connection between this climate and “an increase of extreme weather events” (#23). It mentions climate as a “common good” (#25). It also mentions carbon and the carbon cycle seven times, and uses the catch-all phrase “greenhouse gases” three times. It only uses the phrase “global warming” three times (#s 23, 167, 175), and in paragraph 24 it says that “
Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.”
does not use the phrase "climate crisis." Certainly our language about what is happening is something that has changed in the last eight years.
also uses the term “greenhouse gas” four times and uses the phrase “global warming” twice. But it mentions climate 33 times and uses the term “climate crisis” six times (including the title and a section heading). While Laudato Si’
is not a document about climate or even the environment per se – it is a social encyclical, Laudate Deum
is very much a document about climate.
What’s exciting to me about Laudate Deum
, is that in it Pope Francis speaks of the high carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. He says,
It is not possible to conceal the correlation of these global climate phenomena and the accelerated increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly since the mid-twentieth century. The overwhelming majority of scientists specializing in the climate support this correlation, and only a very small percentage of them seek to deny the evidence (#13).
He also speaks of the need to reduce carbon dioxide levels. (#59)
This is interesting to me because, for the first part of 2023, I was immersed in the world of "carbon removal." We were working on a short documentary called, “Answering the Cry of the Earth”
where we feature carbon removal (not to be confused with "carbon capture" which is a completely different process) initiatives as an essential focus of climate solutions. We saw these carbon removal projects as ideal examples of what Pope Francis calls “integral ecology” in Laudato Si’.
A scene from Answering the Cry of the Earth. Olivine sand can be used to reverse the acidification of the oceans caused by too much carbon.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and former prefect for the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, the dicastery under which Laudato Si’
was published, explained it well at a conference hosted at the recently formed Doerr School of Sustainability
at Stanford University: “Not only nature has an ecology, but the human person also has an ecology: A set of moral conditions that need to prevail to make human life successful and effective. And not only the human person but also society as a whole also has an ecology. So it’s all about the series of conditions that need to prevail to make nature properly successful, nature the human person and all of that. And all of that put together, is that central teaching in the Encyclical called Integral Ecology.”
Our 2015 documentary series, Creation
, is all about integral ecology. We explained it as the integration of the human and the natural ecologies; a truly ‘catholic’ understanding of ecology, which includes the human and the natural ecology. (Learn more by reading Deacon-structing Integral Ecology
We were at Stanford University with Cardinal Turkson because we were invited by the hosts of the event, the Laudato Si’ Challenge Foundation
whose mission is to “take up the challenges set forth in Laudato Si’
by answering the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth through bold, coordinated and measurable impact.”
The conference brought together a group of scientists, religious leaders, academics, politicians, climate activists and entrepreneurs; men and women from both hemispheres, along virtually all political lines and with varied faith backgrounds to meet each other, share experiences and ideas, look at research and explore climate solutions.
Half of the first day of the conference was spent learning about carbon removal projects. We learned that the warming of the planet is caused by extreme quantities of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon is part of the natural ecology and is good. Without it life on this planet would not exist. But too much carbon is like “putting on an extra sweater on a hot day,” describes Peter Minor, Director of Science and Innovation at Carbon 180
. This results in a warming of the atmosphere, which causes extreme weather patterns. And so, what would have been normal occurrences every one thousand years, begins occurring every 100 years, or every 10 years. Finally we see the results where, wild fires, for example, now happen every year, with an increased frequency and intensity. We see places that experienced extreme droughts and wild fires, a few months later experience record rain and flooding. The same can be said for droughts, hurricanes, winter storms, and heat waves.
Too much carbon in the atmosphere also causes the “acidification of the oceans.” The oceans are meant to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, taking in more carbon than it releases and thus helping regulate the global climate. But not in these quantities. More acidic oceans means that the water has a reduced pH making survival more difficult for some marine creatures. Pope Francis writes: “Some effects of the climate crisis are already irreversible, at least for several hundred years, such as the increase in the global temperature of the oceans, their acidification and the decrease of oxygen” (LD #15).
Pope Francis also writes in Laudate Deum
The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which causes global warming, was stable until the nineteenth century, below 300 parts per million in volume. But in the middle of that century, in conjunction with industrial development, emissions began to increase. In the past fifty years, this increase has accelerated significantly, as the Mauna Loa observatory, which has taken daily measurements of carbon dioxide since 1958, has confirmed. While I was writing Laudato Si’, they hit a historic high – 400 parts per million – until arriving at 423 parts per million in June 2023. More than 42% of total net emissions since the year 1850 were produced after 1990 (#11).
At the same time, we have confirmed that in the last fifty years the temperature has risen at an unprecedented speed, greater than any time over the past two thousand years. In this period, the trend was a warming of 0.15° C per decade, double that of the last 150 years. From 1850 on, the global temperature has risen by 1.1° C, with even greater impact on the polar regions. At this rate, it is possible that in just ten years we will reach the recommended maximum global ceiling of 1.5° C (#12).
It is estimated that, over the last 50 years, some 500 billion tons of carbon have been emitted into the atmosphere. In order to get back down to the 300 parts per million that Pope Francis refers to, not only do we have to reduce our emissions significantly, but, as we learned at the Stanford University Conference, we have to remove carbon from the atmosphere – some 5-10 billion tons each year by the year 2050.
The good news is that it is possible.
God has created a world that, when it functions that way it was designed to function, according to its nature, works perfectly. Sometimes, we human beings push things to the limit – I believe this is part of our “be fruitful and multiply” nature. No one knew 50 years ago that carbon emissions were going to cause global warming, changes to the climate and the acidification of the oceans.
But we know now and here we are. And we know that it is our human behaviour that has greatly contributed to this.
We also know that God has already given us the solutions. We just have to look at the nature of our ecology, listen to the grammar of creation that Pope Benedict wrote of (Caritas in Veritate
#48) and discover where and how in nature carbon can be captured and/or stored permanently. This is something that trees do – they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. However, in order to remove 5 billion tons of carbon every year, we would have to plant more trees than our planet has space for.
But trees are not the only way that nature absorbs carbon.
In Answering the Cry of the Earth
, you will learn of the work of Vesta
, two companies that are using the natural minerals olivine and limestone to do what they normally do in nature: absorb carbon – and they are doing it successfully. The documentary also addresses the need to mobilize around environmental action, showing that economic and environmental success go hand-in-hand and that everyone, no matter their ideology has a seat at the table of ongoing dialogue concerning everything that is climate-related and motivate everyone in their efforts to care for our common home.
Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si
’ that “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (LS #13).
We know that things can change. And we all have a part to play. We may not be able to personally remove carbon from the atmosphere, but we can reduce how much carbon we put in the atmosphere. Whether we decide to drive an electric vehicle, carpool, take the bus, walk or ride a bicycle, or whether we compost more and create less waste, whatever we do will make a difference. We can eat local, and make better energy choices when possible. We can also support and not shame those who are not able to make changes as easily as we can where we live. Finally. we can also have a greater awareness about how our choices affect those in the global south, those more likely to be affected by the climate emergency.
Pope Francis reminds us that caring for our common home is a moral responsibility. We all have a part to play. He also reminds us that our response is motivated by our faith. We care for our common home because we are Christians. The time is now. Our earth is burning and it's time to pay our fair share. But most importantly, we must praise God, for when we don’t, we become our worst enemies.
Watch Answering the Cry of the Earth on Salt + Light TV on Sunday, October 15 at 8:30 pm ET / 5:30 pm PT.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]