The Pope Pleads to the UN: The Planet Is Ours to Save

Looking ahead to a climate conference in Paris this winter, Francis called for better stewardship of creation.

Tony Gentile / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

On Friday, the pope stood before the United Nations and declared that the organization has failed. He urged UN members to care for the environment and the humans living in it, and to take on challenges ranging from human and drug trafficking to extreme poverty and government corruption. “We cannot permit ourselves to postpone certain agendas for the future,” he said.

This speech, which marks the fifth time a pope has addressed the international body, follows the themes of the pope’s past writings and homilies. Last June, Pope Francis released an encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. In it, he wrote of drought and flood and pollution and waste; he talked about the cultural obsession with technology and the man-made causes of climate change. At the center of this argument was a call to care for humanity, but it was also laced with an accusation: International institutions have done far too little to protect the environment.

“The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance,” he wrote. “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

There were echoes of this sharp critique in the pope’s UN speech on Friday. “Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical, and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment,” he said. “Such is the magnitude of these situations, and their toll in innocent lives, that we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.”

In the encyclical, Francis listed a number of specific failures of global organizations including the UN: a misplaced belief that technocracy is the key to development; a deference to wealth and power; “bureaucratic inertia” and inefficiency. Although the pope is a pastor, a figure of the Church, he argued that more powerful international organizations are necessary for saving the environment. “It is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions,” he wrote.

On Friday, the pope was a little more hopeful. “I can only reiterate the appreciation expressed by my predecessors in reaffirming the importance which the Catholic Church attaches to this institution and the hope which she places in its activities,” he said.

But the challenge is a big one. “Any harm done to the environment ... is harm done to humanity,” he said. “A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled, or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.” This echoes a central theme of Francis’s: The world has the greatest obligation to those who live at the margins of society, who are “forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.”

In addition to the environment, the pope discussed war, money laundering, child exploitation, prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism, and organized crime. He also raised two issues that are of particular concern on this trip to the U.S.: the nature of marriage and care for all humans, including the unborn. In Francis’s writing, he often draws an explicit connection between environmental destruction and the degradation of families. In Catholic social thought, the family is the core of all moral life, from the most micro decisions to the most macro. “The defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself,” the pope said on Friday, “one which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.”

These are not idle calls to action. Francis gave this speech with an eye ahead to this winter, when diplomats will gather in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change. The goal is to pass a legally binding, universal agreement on climate issues like greenhouse-gas reductions. There seems to be goodwill among at least some countries, but like so many climate conferences of the past, the effort may be fraught.

Francis spoke on Friday in his typical style. Before he spoke to the assembly, he stopped to address UN staffers, thanking the cooks and cleaners alongside the diplomats and translators. Crowds of children singing about peace greeted him in the hallways. During his speech, he acknowledged the foreign-service workers who have died on peace and reconciliation missions. He spoke in Spanish at his methodical pace, with enormous gravitas.

But the stakes were clearly high. Francis and his predecessors seem to put a lot of stock in the power of organizations like the UN, even if they haven’t lived up to their potential. “The history of this organized community of states is one of important common achievements over a period of unusually fast-paced changes,” the pope said. “The future demands of us critical and global decisions in the face of worldwide conflicts which increase the number of the excluded and those in need.”