HomePolitical leadershipAs the Pope says, concern for the natural world is no longer optional

As the Pope says, concern for the natural world is no longer optional

pope 2This post is by Nigel Haigh, former director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and chair of Green Alliance from 1989 to 1998.

Five years ago Pope Francis published his encyclical about our environmental predicament, called  Laudato Si’ – on care for our common home. My reaction at the time was delight that he had done so, but I failed to read it, probably like many readers of this blog. It is over 100 pages long after all. I only did so during Finland’s Presidency of the EU Council last year, when I was invited to speak at a seminar about the EU’s contribution to solving the problems the Pope identified. The Vatican has now ensured its greater prominence by announcing a year of action. One response, by WWF, is to enter into an agreement with the Vatican to help promote it.

The Vatican website crashed on its publication
The encyclical is addressed to people throughout the world, not just to Christians. It has been read more widely outside the Catholic Church than any previous papal encyclical and its appearance was so eagerly awaited that the Vatican website crashed on publication. It has the capacity to reach people throughout the world not normally interested in the environment and is helping to shift the underlying  public mood, without which the changes called for by the Pope can seem so difficult.  The coronavirus pandemic makes it all the more relevant.

Laudato Si’ are the opening words of a beautiful hymn by St Francis of Assisi, known as the Canticle of the Sun. The Pope starts by quoting it: “Praise be to you my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs …”. He then pulls no punches when he asserts: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

One of the Pope’s themes is that concern for the natural world is no longer optional but is an integral part of the teaching of the Church on social justice. He insists that it is essential “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”. He blames a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment on: apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political short-sightedness.  The first of its six chapters covers: pollution and climate change, water, loss of biodiversity, decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, global inequality, weak responses and a variety of opinion.

The Pope’s challenges to governments
In my lecture in Helsinki I concentrated on his messages for governments and international organisations. Laudato Si’ is not explicitly addressed to them, and the only international organisation he names is the United Nations. I drew attention to one passage, clearly directed at governments, where he poses three challenges: he regrets that we lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths, says that we need a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and notes how weak international political responses have been.

In assessing the EU’s past actions against these challenges, I concluded that, fallible human institution that it is, the EU is better placed, for both institutional and cultural reasons, to be an environmental leader in the next half century than its fellow big global players, including China, Russia, India, Brazil and the USA. The USA has long given up any claim to being an environmental leader.

It is not sufficiently well known that the EU changed purpose – at least on paper – when its governing Treaties were amended to change the wording of its task from “continuous expansion” to “sustainable development”. These now state that “It shall work for the sustainable development of Europe…” and “shall contribute to the sustainable development of the Earth”. The European Green Deal, if agreed, will demonstrate that the EU has indeed begun to strike out on a new path.   There is always scope for backsliding and those who negotiated the – yet to be ratified – EU/Mercosur (or South American Common Market) free trade agreement simply ignored the new wording. Environmental reasons may yet prevent its ratification.

With which big global players will the UK now make common cause?
It is now generally accepted that the EU’s body of environmental legislation is the most advanced in the world and many items set clear boundaries. In the UK, too, the Climate Change Act sets legally binding limits, and a legal framework for more is foreseen in the Environment Bill. To what extent EU and UK limits or boundaries will stay aligned is now under negotiation between the EU and the UK.

The Pope’s last challenge about “weak international political responses” cannot have been helped by Brexit. The EU is obviously weakened by the departure of one of its richest and most populous member states. It was the EU, including then the UK, that strengthened the Montreal Protocol protecting the ozone layer by standing up to the USA, and it was the EU that made the UN climate change convention possible.

The UK may wish to be “world beating” but in international environmental negotiations it could be seen by the big players as just a small island, a little weaker than Japan, while still thinking itself a global power. The extent that the UK chooses to make common cause with the EU, or with the USA or stand on its own, will be of the greatest importance for ‘care for our common home’ during the lifetime of those living today. The first big test could be the UN COP26 climate conference being hosted in Glasgow next year.

[Image of Pope Francis, courtesy of the Aleteia Image Department on Flickr]
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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.