Pope Francis: the World is Collapsing

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German pellet factory on fire, Easter 2017, in the sacrifice zone of Port Arthur, Texas. Photo: Courtesy Annette Mitchell and John Beard.

The scientist and politician in Pope Francis

A few years ago, in 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical that sided with the environmentalists fighting polluters. In his LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord,” Pope Francis imitated Saint Francis of Assisi in praising “our common home,” Mother Earth. In his latest political foray into the controversial climate change / crisis / emergency/ global warming, the Pope is more straightforward and science-based than ever before. He named his October 4, 2023 letter, “Laudate Deum / Praise God.” He addressed this 7,000-word letter to “all people of good will” and he defined the purpose of his apostolic exhortation to highlighting the political and technological complexity of the climate crisis.

With the exception of a few sections at the end dealing with spiritual / Biblical sayings about the Earth, most of this treatise is a brief and admirable summary of climate science that explains the changing climate and the resultant global warming. But what caught my attention was his achievement in addressing science in a philosophical and political context, something that matters today, the third decade of the twenty-first century.

Failures of international climate politics

Pope Francis is unhappy with the technocratic corporate class ruling the planet, especially the billionaire bosses of fossil fuel companies engrossed in making money at the expense of life on Earth. He rattles data on extreme heat waves, draught, floods, forest fires, the melting of Arctic ice and the thawing of permafrost. He says these man-made phenomena have already damaged life in the oceans, harm likely to last for centuries.

He criticized the global United Nations leadership on climate, having annual Conference of the Parties, during which prime ministers and presidents agreeing on the reduction of fossil fuels, but, in reality, ignoring their promises and doing practically nothing to fight the existential danger of climate change.

The Pope is probably anxious about the potential outcome or failure of the COP28 scheduled for November 2023 in oil-rich Dubai. He does not speak about the process of how Dubai convinced or bribed the United Nations to agree it could host the Climate Summit.

Pope Francis is angry with the failing international political system at the expense of the health and survival of humanity and Mother Earth.

The world is collapsing

“I have realized,” he says, “that our responses [to climate crisis] have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”

This language is causing anxiety in America. The Pope, is “a climate alarmist, a techno-skeptic and a degrowther,” says David Wallace-Wells of the New York Times, “sympathetic to activists… [He has] also emphatically endorsed the “abandonment” of fossil fuels — outing himself as a “keep it in the ground” guy as well.”

But the Pope speaks the truth, exactly like Antonio Guterres. Nothing he said alarmed me. Are we to dismiss such a world celebrity defending the Earth because he speaks of “the ethical decadence of real power,” including real power in America? Pope Francis writes for all humanity. He is right denouncing “the technocratic paradigm of power” encoded into Artificial Intelligence, a “monstrosity” feeding on itself.

Pope Francis is right. Like a climatologist, he cites numbers showing the steep rise of global temperature. “In the last fifty years,” he says, “the temperature has risen at an unprecedented speed, greater than any time over the past two thousand years. In this period, the trend was a warming of 0.15° C [Celsius] per decade, double that of the last 150 years. From 1850 on, the global temperature has risen by 1.1° C, with even greater impact on the polar regions. At this rate, it is possible that in just ten years we will reach the recommended maximum global ceiling of 1.5° C. This increase has not occurred on the earth’s surface alone but also several kilometers higher in the atmosphere, on the surface of the oceans and even in their depths for hundreds of meters. Thus the acidification of the seas increased, and their oxygen levels were reduced. The glaciers are receding, the snow cover is diminishing, and the sea level is constantly rising.”

Pope Francis understands that harming or killing life in the vast oceans may have such immense consequences that flash his mind with the Biblical Apocalypses. “Certain apocalyptic diagnoses may well appear scarcely reasonable or insufficiently grounded,” he says. “This should not lead us to ignore the real possibility that we are approaching a critical point. Small changes can cause greater ones, unforeseen and perhaps already irreversible, due to factors of inertia. This would end up precipitating a cascade of events having a snowball effect. In such cases, it is always too late, since no intervention will be able to halt a process once begun. There is no turning back.”

Apocalypses or not, tipping points are travels of no return. The dinosaurs and countless disappearing species are gone forever. Theoretical criticism of the fossil fuel billionaires who have been triggering such cosmic havoc has its limits. These oligarchs have purchased scientists and professors and politicians to keep the people misinformed and misguided while they enjoy royal powers and luxuries.

Any way out of our climate tragedy?

Is there a way out of such deadly dilemma? Do we keep writing that increasing global temperatures are not good for us and Mother Earth? And what happens, as the situation is developing today, when, with the rare exception of the UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, the vast number of politicians lie to the people? Pope Francis is concerned that “the necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, is not progressing at the necessary speed. Consequently, whatever is being done risks being seen only as a ploy to distract attention.”

Do we go on tolerating distractions and meaningless global climate summits and state palliative measures? Increasing the number of electric cars, increasing investments in solar and wind energy, while the petroleum, natural gas, and coal magnates keep excavating the planet?

Pope Francis does not speak about billionaires. He is the billionaire of billionaires. He is the owner of the Catholic Church, a vast organization of global power and immense wealth. Of course, he is very angry with fossil fuel owners, including Catholic oilmen, telling them to leave fossil fuels in the ground. He is disgusted with the charade of blah, blah, blahs.

Can the Pope civilize the billionaire rulers of the world?

But the Pope could take his knowledge and genuine good will a step further. He does have access to the billionaires who control the planet. He could invite them to the Vatican and urge them to use their tremendous influence in changing global policies affecting the Earth. Those billionaires have enough trillions of dollars to stop climate change in its tracks. They could move fast away from fossil fuels and replace them with solar and wind energy – worldwide. Pope Francis could convince them to fund a World Environment Organization to clean up the pollution of the oceans and land. WEO would be the final authority in what humanity does with agriculture, war, population, forests, transportation, fishing, and energy. In other words, the Pope could go down in history as the modern protector of Mother Earth.

Nuclear weapons must be dismantled and abolished as rapidly as fossil fuels. Agriculture can’t go on poisoning the land and the very food people eat. Billions of petroleum-powered cars must also be recycled. Electric trams, trains, subways, and buses should do the heavy lifting in moving people and goods around. Plastic nets scooping up fish in the oceans and seas must be abandoned for traditional fishing practices. In other words, industrialization must be modified considerably and, in some instances, abandoned. WEO will function to protect surviving ecosystems and smaller societies working together without war. At least, this is a dream, which Pope Francis might spark for our badly divided world.

If his personal and diplomatic or public exhortations did not suffice, Pope Francis could use his ultimate and centuries-old weapon: excommunication. There’s little doubt most people will be with him.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.