Pope visit sets stage for encyclical

January 12, 2015

MANILA, Philippines–When Pope Francis visits Tacloban City in Leyte province on Jan. 17, he is embarking on a mission with more far-reaching significance and impact than expressing the Church’s compassion for victims of natural disasters.

He will share a meal with 30 survivors of the 2013 earthquake in Bohol province and of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) in nearby Palo town, but that is only one step in a series of activities planned to spur nations to act collectively to ease the impact of climate change, whose victims are almost always the poor.

After his visit to the Philippines, the Pope is expected to release an encyclical on climate change urging the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to take action on moral and scientific grounds.

The lengthy statement will be sent to the Catholic world’s 5,000 bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to parishioners.

The exact date of the release of the encyclical is not yet known, but The Associated Press expects it to come as early as this spring following the Pope’s visit to Tacloban, ground zero for Yolanda, history’s most destructive storm, while The Guardian of London sees it coming later this year, in time for the United Nations climate talks in Paris.

Before that, however, Pope Francis will address the UN General Assembly in September and call a summit of the world’s main religions to urge collective action on climate change.

Influencing climate talks

Speaking at a meeting of Cafod, the Catholic development agency, in London in December last year, Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said the series of

papal activities was aimed at directly influencing this year’s UN climate meeting in Paris, when countries would try to conclude 20 years of fraught negotiations with a universal commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

“Our academics supported the Pope’s initiative to influence next year’s crucial decisions,” Sorondo told Cafod, according to The Guardian’s report on the meeting, “Pope Francis’ edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches” published last Dec. 27 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/pope-francis-edict-climate-change-us-rightwing).

“The idea is to convene a meeting with leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion,” Sorondo said.

“The anticipation around Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical is unprecedented,” said Neil Thorns, head of advocacy at Cafod. “We have seen thousands of our supporters commit to making sure their MPs (members of parliament) know climate change is affecting the poorest communities.”

With his visit to Tacloban, Francis sets the stage for the release of his first encyclical, although leaders of the Church in the Philippines appear to be unaware of the imminence of its issuance.

The Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, said he was not sure whether an encyclical on climate change was forthcoming.

“What I know is that issues related to the environment are being studied in the Vatican for a possible encyclical,” Tagle said. “I don’t know if the study is finished or if an encyclical has been written.”

‘Ethical imperative’

The Rev. Anton Pascual, executive director of Caritas Manila and head of the subcommittee on media relations for the papal visit, said Francis would speak about environmental concerns in his discourses here.

“His mercy and compassion theme in visiting our country will definitely include his strong advocacy of care for God’s creation and the challenge of responsible stewardship of our environment and care for the poor,” Pascual said.

“The poor are the most vulnerable during disasters that Pope Francis would like to address and give special concern from society, especially its leaders,” he said.

The Pope may have given the world a glimpse of the encyclical when he sent a message to environmental ministers who attended the 20th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru, last month.

“What you are going to debate affects the whole of humanity, in particular the poorest and future generations. More than that, it is a grave ethical and moral responsibility,” Francis said in his message sent to Peruvian Minister of the Environment Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, president of the climate talks.

The Pontiff warned about the “consequences of changes” brought about by climate change, “which are already felt in a dramatic way in many states, especially the insular ones of the Pacific, remind us of the gravity of negligence and inaction. The time to find global solutions is running out. We will only be able to find adequate solutions if we act together and in agreement. Hence, there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.”

Francis pushed for an “effective struggle against global warming” through a “responsible collective answer that goes beyond particular interests and behavior and is developed free of political and economic pressures.”

Bishops from every continent, also frustrated with the stalled climate talks, urged rich countries taking part in the Lima conference to act.

Resistance from skeptics

But the Pope’s environmental radicalism is likely to draw resistance from Vatican conservatives and in right-wing Church circles, particularly in the United States, where Catholic climate skeptics include the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, and Rick Santorum, the former Republican presidential candidate, according to The Guardian.

Cardinal George Pell, a former Archbishop of Sydney whom Francis has appointed to oversee the Vatican’s budget, is a climate change skeptic who has been criticized for claiming that global warming has ceased and that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were doubled, then plants would love it, The Guardian said.

The paper also quoted Dan Misleh, director of the Catholic climate covenant, as saying: “There will always be 5-10 percent of people who will take offense. They are very vocal and have political clout. This encyclical will threaten some people and bring joy to others. The arguments are around economics and science rather than morality.”

Even so, news that the Pope would be championing collective action on global warming made the day of Sen. Loren Legarda.

“I look forward to the [encyclical] of Pope Francis about climate change and how it affects the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society,” Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on climate change, said in a phone interview on Friday.

Protectors of environment

Legarda is the UN International Strategy on Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) champion for climate change adaptation and risk reduction.

“Pope Francis has been calling upon humanity to be the protectors of the environment. He really understands the needs of the poor because the poorest citizens of the world are the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation,” Legarda said.

“The earth that we live in provides us with our needs, and even if we have all the money in the world, we will not survive in a deteriorating environment. I hope this will be among his (Pope Francis’) messages to the Filipinos so that we would be more mindful of our environment by respecting our environmental laws, veering away from a consumptive lifestyle, and working toward sustainability and resilience,” she said.

Storm surges

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), giant storm surges generated by Yolanda provided the world with an incontrovertible proof of extreme weather events associated with climate change.

The WMO’s Annual Statement on the Status of the Climate in 2014 confirmed the long-term global warming trend, with WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud declaring that Yolanda was unequivocal proof of the disastrous effects of global warming on the planet and its inhabitants.

“We saw heavier precipitation, more intense heat, and more damage from storm surges and coastal flooding as a result of sea-level rise-as Typhoon Haiyan so tragically demonstrated in the Philippines,” Jarraud said in a statement.

The WMO annual statement reported that 2013 tied with 2007 as the sixth warmest on record. It said 13 of the 14 warmest years on record all occurred in the 21st century.

Climate change causes extreme events (i.e., storms becoming more intense and longer lasting) because of warmer ocean temperatures, among other factors.

Studies show that as sea surface temperatures rise, developing storms (hurricanes or tropical cyclones), which get their energy from warm water, will consequently contain more energy, resulting in stronger storms.

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