Q&A on Pope Francis Climate Encyclical

Today Pope Francis issued an encyclical focused on climate change delivering a strong message on the environment and supporting a moral framing of the threats posed by climate change.

Today Pope Francis issued an encyclical focused on climate change delivering a strong message on the environment and supporting a moral framing of the threats posed by climate change. No pope has ever issued a statement about the environment on this level of document. Environmental Policy Professor Chad McGuire and Business Law and Sustainable Development Professor Adam Sulkowski discuss the significance and impact of Pope Francis' climate encyclical. 

What's the significance of this encyclical given that no pope has ever issued a statement about the environment on this level of document? 

CM: The ultimate significance remains to be seen. But certainly having a strong sectarian statement that acknowledges climate change, the science supporting climate change, and importantly the role of humans in climate change is substantial. Over the past several decades we have undertaken substantial efforts to understand climate change as a phenomenon. That work, most of which is incorporated into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is compelling and entirely clear in its conclusions. Climate change is occurring and human activities, mainly carbon redistribution, are a substantial cause of observed climate change. Although this conclusion is well accepted in the scientific community, it has yet to fully penetrate our civil, social, and religious institutions. By issuing an encyclical, the Pope has provided an opportunity for the reality of climate change to penetrate further into the conscious of society. If this leads to greater public support for the acceptance of climate change, then it can be seen as an important step in generating public support. And public support is a cornerstone of meaningful action from all sectors of society. 

AS: In fairness to the two previous Popes, both John Paull II and Benedict did mention environmental issues in the past, but not on this scale. This has been building for a while, and finally now something appropriately assertive has been produced given the scale, urgency, and severity of what has been unfolding. 

What impact do you think it will have at any level whether it is among members of the general public, Catholics, or U.S./International leaders? 

CM: This is a historic moment for the Catholic Church, without doubt. It highlights the notion that we humans are active (rather than passive) stewards of this earth, recognizing that our actions can be harmful as well as beneficial. By accepting climate change as a fact, and also accepting the human agency in climate change, the encyclical promotes a kind of responsibility on behalf of Catholics in the choices they make. Thus actions that are carbon intensive must be reconciled through this new teaching. The potential for impact is certainly there, but how this this new teaching is internalized into the sermons and practices of the faithful will be an important part of understanding just how much of an impact it will make. Outside of the church, it may hopefully serve as another pillar of support in accepting the reality of climate change. Again, assuming public support is a catalyst for public action, anything that helps create a critical mass of support has the potential to be of significant impact. We'll have to wait and see. 

AS: I do not know, but we can look to history. I'm currently finishing my Fulbright in Poland, where in the 1980s roughly 10 million people (roughly 25 percent of the population) joined the Solidarity movement that peacefully negotiated the first partially free elections in the former Soviet sphere of influence. If you look at the timeline, this precipitated all the other revolutions in neighboring countries, culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union. What sparked the Solidarity movement in 1980? It was the Polish Pope's visit in 1979 and his encouragement "do not be afraid" - and his visible and vocal encouragement thereafter. So is it possible to compare Francis' statements on climate change and ecological devastation (and hopefully active campaigning and movement-catalyzing) to John Paull II's role in sparking and encouraging Solidarity? I think we can draw some parallels and conclude that potentially a Pope (and/or other religious/spiritual leaders) have the potential to inspire movements - even movements that topple entrenched, massive, armed, and authoritarian regimes. However, in this case, the answer ultimately depends on how we (non-Catholics and Catholics alike) decide to react to the growing list of global thought leaders who are imploring us at every level to do something. 

It's worth noting we're already past some tipping points with climate change, and my first reaction to the question was that no, I was not immediately thinking this will do much among those with power in business and governments to make massive, all-out efforts. Solidarity and the rest of the population had to endure martial law and wait nine years for concessions from those in power. Similarly, we shouldn't expect this movement, even with spiritual leaders' support, to achieve anything quickly or easily, and the alignment (and sometimes conflict) with business interests will obviously be a huge factor in how this story unfolds. However, it is certainly worth reflecting on John Paul II and his role in inspiring everyday people to realize that together they had more power than the entrenched elite. 

About Chad McGuire 

Dr. McGuire is a Professor of Environmental Policy within UMass Dartmouth's Department of Public Policy. His background is in environmental law and environmental science. Professor McGuire teaches, writes, and practices in the fields of environmental law, policy, sustainability and dispute resolution. He has published more than 20 scholarly articles and three academic texts on these topics over the last ten years. In addition, he works on policy issues related to fisheries management, climate change, coastal management, and land use patterns. Dr. McGuire's expertise has been sought in both private and public forums, and he currently serves on committees for both non-profit and government entities. For more information on Professor McGuire's research on environmental issues, sea-level rise, and climate change visit http://www.umassd.edu/features/stories/chadmcguire/. 

About Adam Sulkowski 

As a professor of business law and sustainable development, Adam Sulkowski specializes in research and teaching in the fields of sustainable business, corporate social responsibility (CSR), triple bottom line reporting (also known as sustainability reporting), integrated reporting, and corporate and environmental law.  He received his JD and MBA from Boston College and BA from the College of William & Mary, is a member of the New York Bar and Massachusetts Bar. Since then, Professor Sulkowski has authored more than 25 published works of scholarship. He has visited, researched, taught, and spoken at campuses, companies, and conferences in countries around the world, including Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and the United States. 


News and Public Information