Laudato si’ and climate change
Climate change is, not surprisingly, the most controversial and politically charged issue in Laudato si’. It has been a source of heated debate and confusion especially in the American context. In this essay I will outline everything the encyclical Laudato si’ says on climate change and then compare and contrast with the latest scientific, technical and academic knowledge. For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish and analyze the statements on climate change under three divisions: science, policy, and politics and economics. These are artificial divisions since these issues are all interrelated, as the encyclical itself indicates, but they serve our analytical purposes.
[Note: I encourage the reader to glance at my two previous articles on Laudato si’ about hermeneutics and its proper interpretation, so that I am not misinterpreted on climate change, as I believe the Pope has been in many cases).
Let me begin with a thought provoking – and provocative – quote that I believe gets at the heart of the debate on climate change: “Isn’t it a question of everything or nothing? To be quite frank, the Either-Or people seldom appear to practice their own severity. Their uncompromising attitude looks suspiciously like rhetoric.”
These are the words of Romano Guardini, the most quoted author in Laudato si’ and the Pope’s great inspiration for understanding the relationship between man and creation. However, these words are not from Guardini’s well-known critiques of modernity but rather from his more famous spiritual work, The Lord. The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount. Guardini is reflecting on Jesus’ demand to love ones enemies and on how difficult it is to fulfill this in practice. Faced with such a challenge, Guardini proposes taking small steps in the right direction. The quote above is the objection of the Either-Or people to Guardini’s solution: “But isn’t it a question of everything or nothing?”
Guardini then responds to his critics: “No, what the Sermon on the Mount demands is not everything or nothing, but a beginning and a continuing, a rising again and a plodding on after every fall”. My suggestion is that the path forward on climate change requires the same path that Guardini paves for the Sermon on the Mount – a genuinely Christian one. And this is exactly what Pope Francis has given us in Laudato si’. Let me explain.
This curious parallel between climate change and the spiritual life is not original. The best book on climate change, by climate scientist Mike Hulme called “Why we disagree about climate change?”, makes this very point. Hulme argues that climate change is a very real threat but that to find a solution to this issue we need to explore how climate change can “bring the physical and the cultural, the material and spiritual, into a new realignment… a mirror into which we can look and see exposed both our individual selves and our collective societies” (2009, 357). This is also the central message of Laudato si’ with regards to climate change – a new realignment is needed: “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity…” for which we need “ecological conversion… whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (218).