OMG…It is Climate Change! Going through the Encyclical letter “Laudato si'” of the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home

The encyclical letter “Laudato si’” of the Holy Father solicited my curiosity. Thus, I went through it and I summarized some of the most important points that I present in the following. The aim of the encyclical letter is to provide knowledge about some of the most important environmental issues to a wide and variously educated audience through the use of an easily understandable language.

The use of the terms “Our common home”, to define the earth, stresses the concept of common good. The earth is considered as a whole rather than as the sum of countries or continents. Consequently, everybody is equally involved in the safeguarding of the planet, although help is requested to sustain the environmentally friendly growth of developing countries. Inequities between developed and developing countries – in terms of consume of resources, effects deriving by climate change as well as potentialities in facing it – are focal points in the encyclical letter.

A major critique is addressed to “modern” lifestyles. The pace of the changes, to which we assist in our everyday life, is dissonant with the pace of nature. As a consequence, the new life styles heavily influence the consumption of resources and the production of wastes transforming our planet in “a pile of filth”. Thus, the encyclical letter suggests two coupled approaches:

–           the modification of the lifestyle inspired to the principal of de-growth;

–           circular economy, in which everything is produced, used, and discarded, enters in a new economic cycle, maximizing its efficient use and minimizing, in this way, wastes through the well-known principle of the 3R: reuse, recycling and reduce.

Pope Francis criticizes also the current state of most cities. Transport, industrial processes, heating and cooling – among the others – contribute to pollute soil, water and air; in turn, this affects people’s health, and climate. Climate is considered as a common good; meaning that it belongs to everybody and its care is an everybody’s duty. Global warming is mainly caused by the release of greenhouse gases related to anthropogenic activities; thus, humanity has to feel responsible for it and has to change lifestyle mainly based on the wide use of fossil fuels and deforestation for agricultural purposes. Climate change affects, in turn, our lives in many ways. For instance, the melting of polar caps gives origin to the sea-level rise that impacts coastal areas. Especially in poor areas, climate change can have heavy effects on ecosystem services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. As a consequence, this affects the local economy and, then, social services and forces people to move in other areas, promoting migration. To mitigate the effects on more vulnerable people or societies developing, policies should be shaped to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases; for instance through the increase in the use of renewable energy and in the investments for production and transportation which require less energy and materials. To reduce energy use also buildings should be adapted to the new climate conditions. Although some countries have already modified their regulations to reduce the energy use for cooling and heating, in many other countries this is still lacking. Cities, where most of people currently live, have already suffered of the shortage of primary resources such as fresh water. This is quite frequent phenomenon in some countries – for instance in Africa – showing a significant difference with countries that can benefit of the abundance of the same good. The privatization of this resource can also exacerbate the condition of indigent people in countries already affected by a fresh water shortage provoking a growing inequality – especially between countries in the North and in the South – and an increase in the cost of food. Furthermore, cities are becoming always more unhealthy because of the lack of green spaces, urban congestion, and pollution.

Critic to the Encyclical Letter

As a scientist, I did not want to renounce to a critical reading of the encyclical letter. I found that the analyses proposed are often superficial. It would have requested too much space for a post in a blog to report every single statement that was scientifically incorrect or that on which I do not agree. As a consequence, I decided to report in the following two main points that I consider the most critical ones.

Environment and Abortion: Which is the Nexus?

Although the overall purpose of the encyclical letter seems to be highly appreciable because it offers to a wide public a broad view on the environmental issues, environmental and climatic issues are regrettably instrumentally used to deliver other messages. On page 89-90 we find that: “[…] concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is un­comfortable and creates difficulties?”. The protection of nature is pushed to the extremes till touching the delicate theme of abortion. The protection of nature is used to avert the abortion that is a theme far away from the environmental issues. Following the same reasoning in the encyclical letter, the Holy Father could have emphasized the connection between the increase in the worldwide population and the consequent increase in the production of meat to meet population’s dietary need. The increase of cattle contributes to the increase in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas that heavily affects climate. As a consequence, a vegetarian diet – more environmentally sustainable than a carnivorous diet – should have been be praised. Much more than abortion, that is clearly a forcing in the environmental discourse, the proposed example seems to be one theme – among a multitude of other themes – that more naturally connects the structure of society and the environmental themes.

When the solutions are just around the corner

In chapter III: “Ecology of daily life”, some examples of good planning are provided. The approach here seems to be too simplistic. Although bad examples of urban planning cannot be denied, the everyday work of planners, urban sociologists, engineers and architects – to name just a few – is already oriented towards providing better living conditions. As a researcher, daily involved in studying and in providing a contribution on the themes of sustainability, urbanization and climate, I think this idyllic vision of planning is far away from any kind of contact with reality. The use of green spaces or vegetation can positively contribute to enhance the quality of life in urban centers; however, it cannot be considered – as simplistically done in the encyclical letter – the panacea for the urban problems. The timely theme of the constant increase in urban population and the consequent rise of new needs makes the interventions in the built environment much more complicated.

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About Tiziana Susca

Tiziana Susca is currently research assistant at Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Berlin (Germany). In 2013 she was a Dahrendorf postdoctoral fellow in the working group on Infrastructures and Climate Change. Her research joins the interest towards: Climate change, environmental assessment, urban studies, assessment of urban ecosystem services with a specific interest in broadening Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) application to the evaluation of the environmental and urban policies. In 2012 she was research fellow at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) in Bologna, Italy. On March 2011 Tiziana earned a Ph.D. in Engineering at Polytechnic University of Bari (Italy) with an inter-disciplinary thesis on LCA focused on the implementation of the LCA methodology to include the effect of variation in urban albedo on climate. During her Ph.D. Tiziana was visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Systems Research, based at NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City a world leading institution in climate research. In 2012 Tiziana obtained from Urban Environmental Pollution 2012 (Elsevier) the Young Research Scientist Award for her research. In the same year she got a sponsorship from the European Space Agency (ESA) to present her research at NASA´s International Workshop on Environmental and Alternative Energy held in Greenbelt, Maryland (USA).
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