Pope’s actions intensify political debate around climate change

By Scott Detrow | 07/16/2015 09:18 AM EDT

Two contrasting British takes on Pope Francis’ landmark environmental encyclical, "Laudato Si’," are the latest examples of how the pontiff’s call for a lower-carbon, lower-impact future has launched a global conversation about the role of religion in environmental policy talks.

In a brief paper published yesterday by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a British climate change skeptic group, Church of England Bishop Peter Forster dismissed Francis’ encyclical as naive and overly simplified. "To us the encyclical is coloured too much by a hankering for a past world, prior to the Industrial Revolution," the Bishop of Chester and member of the British House of Lords wrote.

The paper mirrored a common theme emerging from critics of the document: that limiting fossil fuel consumption would deepen and widen the global poverty Francis has labeled as his top concern.


While Forster is taking Francis on, a British Islamic group is praising the encyclical. Fazlun Khalid, founder and director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, praised the document in a recent op-ed, writing, "the encyclical rightly draws our attention to the connection between a degraded planet and its effect on the poor, not forgetting that climate change has largely been caused by the rich over-consuming nations. There is here common ground between the Pope’s vision and the approach of the Qur-an."

Khalid’s group is working to organize a climate-focused declaration mirroring the themes of Francis’ encyclical. It aims to unveil the document at an Islamic symposium in Istanbul next month. "There is depth to what is common between our faiths and we have much to gain by working together," Khalid wrote.

Meetings with mayors and a governor

One line of criticism that has emerged from some conservative religious quarters: that by aligning himself closely with the United Nations and warning against the impact that the human population is creating on the Earth, Francis is offering a tacit endorsement of contraceptives and other family planning methods endorsed by the global body but opposed by the Vatican.

At a morning press conference yesterday announcing details of a two-day climate change conference, one Vatican official delivered a blunt response to that concern. "The United Nations is not the devil. Rather, quite the opposite," said Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, according to the National Catholic Reporter. "To see the devil in the United Nations, which some on the right tend to do, is not the position of the Holy See."

The encyclical, in fact, addresses this issue. "Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion," Francis writes.

The two-day Vatican conference, which will also address human trafficking, will include mayors from all over the world. The mayors of Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco will attend, along with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) (ClimateWire, July 10).

As Brown prepares to travel to the Vatican, California’s state Senate is planning on passing a resolution urging state and federal officials to "consider the implications of the Papal encyclical and climate change in their policy and fiscal actions."

The resolution, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and scheduled for a vote today, also calls on legislative committees to hold hearings on the document "and seek testimony from religious leaders, state officials, environmental organizations, business groups, and the general public."