In an unprecedented encyclical Laudato Si (Praise Be To You) on the environment and climate change, the Pope has called “to move forward in a bold cultural revolution”, proposing an ‘integral ecology’ to reinstate ethics and values in economy, politics and society as a whole.

Firmly putting the blame for the climate and environmental crisis with the rich and powerful nations, he denounced compulsive consumerism, today’s ‘throwaway’ culture, the “rapidification” of life and work, and a technocratic and fundamentally flawed model of limitless economic growth as the main culprits.

"The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth", said Pope Francis in his passionate plea for a more responsible stewardship of our planet and the commons.

The encyclical, a formal Papal letter designed to outline Papal thinking on crucial topics, is well grounded in the latest science, and takes an enthusiastically holistic ecosystem based view, in which environmental, economic and social problems – and solutions- are closely intertwined, with the fight against poverty being at the crux of the matter.

Decrying the current domination of governments by business interests and multi-nationals, and exposing the “ecological debt” between the north and south, the Pontiff also deplored the lack of leadership and short-sightedness in economics and politics. In unequivocally supporting the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change, the Pope denounced in particular the lack of progress in international negotiations and the failure to date of global summits.

The letter focuses heavily on the threat posed by climate change, and has been strategically released now to maximise its impact on citizens and governments in advance of the UN COP21 climate talks in Paris this November.

The encyclical downplayed the role of population growth, stating that “…to blame population growth instead of excessive consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues”. Instead, the Pope stressed that it is global poverty that needs to be tackled first and foremost, in concert with mindless consumerism and short-term political planning in developed countries.

Solutions

The encyclical includes practical guidance – pointing to the need for urgent and immediate action at all levels, and instating a “less is more” conviction as the basis for a more ethical society and new economy. Echoing the current thinking on the circular economy, the encyclical advocates a “circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.”

The view that market forces – such as emission trading - and technology fixes will address all these challenges is overly simplistic, according to the Pontiff -‘Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?” He regrets that ‘Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience’, and pleas for a reconnection with nature.

We have come to see ourselves as [Mother Earth’s]) lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.We need to move away from the excessive anthropocentrism that distorts the relationship between human beings and the world. “A world view in which we think we hold mastery over the world should be replaced with joint responsibility of the commons and responsible stewardship", with politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.

Put simply,it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress”, concludes the Pope.

Seas At Risk is glad to see that oceans governance is also high on the Pope’s agenda. He warned about the impact of climate change in terms of acidification and sea level rising, the melting of polar ice caps and underlines the significance of plankton in the overall food chain. He calls for the establishment of marine protected areas, combating uncontrolled fishing and marine litter and the protection of the open seas, and support for small scale fisheries. Fragmentation of governance and the weak mechanisms of regulation, control and penalisation undermine the effectiveness of current international and regional conventions. “What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called “global commons.”


Oceans in the Encyclical 

24.         Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.

37.         Some countries have made significant progress in establishing sanctuaries on land and in the oceans where any human intervention is prohibited which might modify their features or alter their original structures. In the protection of biodiversity, specialists insist on the need for particular attention to be shown to areas richer both in the number of species and in endemic, rare or less protected species. Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life.

40.         Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures, many of them still unknown to us and threatened for various reasons. What is more, marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the world’s population, is affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species. Selective forms of fishing which discard much of what they collect continue unabated. Particularly threatened are marine organisms which we tend to overlook, like some forms of plankton; they represent a significant element in the ocean food chain, and species used for our food ultimately depend on them.

41.         In tropical and subtropical seas, we find coral reefs comparable to the great forests on dry land, for they shelter approximately a million species, including fish, crabs, molluscs, sponges and algae. Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline. “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?” This phenomenon is due largely to pollution which reaches the sea as the result of deforestation, agricultural monocultures, industrial waste and destructive fishing methods, especially those using cyanide and dynamite. It is aggravated by the rise in temperature of the oceans. All of this helps us to see that every intervention in nature can have consequences which are not immediately evident, and that certain ways of exploiting resources prove costly in terms of degradation which ultimately reaches the ocean bed itself.

48.         The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.[

129.       In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small- scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

174.       Let us also mention the system of governance of the oceans. International and regional conventions do exist, but fragmentation and the lack of strict mechanisms of regulation, control and penalization end up undermining these efforts. The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges. What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called “global commons.

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