Pope Francis Calls For "˜Cultural Revolution' Over Climate Change

Vatican document could shake up the debate—and put Catholic climate deniers in a tough spot.

Pope Francis is putting the weight of the Vatican firmly behind an international climate deal, telling global governments that they have a moral duty to fight climate change.

In a hotly anticipated document titled "Laudato Si', On the Care of Our Common Home," Francis called Thursday for a "bold cultural revolution" over how people treat the world.

"There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself," he wrote.

The Pope's message ties climate change to poverty and the consumer culture. The encyclical—the highest form of a papal teaching—highlights the impact that climate change is having on the world's poor, saying that the Third World is feeling the greatest burden from the extreme weather and global warming caused by consumption from developed nations.

The 184-page document is meant to influence negotiators heading into United Nations climate-change talks in Paris at the end of the year, pressuring the United States and the rest of the developed world to enact policies that will reduce carbon emissions.

Without action, the encyclical says, the world faces an "unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us."

In his weekly audience Wednesday, Francis, the first Pope from the developing world, said the document was "for everyone" and summed up the message by saying, "Our 'home' is being ruined, and this hurts everyone, especially the poorest among us."

The encyclical is a formal letter to bishops based on the church's teachings and is meant to inform them about the Vatican's position on climate change. Environmentalists and faith groups alike have been eagerly awaiting the Pope's comments, saying that they will add a moral dimension to the climate debate. Democrats have also been hopeful that the encyclical will shake up the climate debate and spur skeptics to reconsider the threat of climate change.

Some notable climate skeptics are Catholic—including presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum and House Speaker John Boehner—but the Right has largely questioned the role of the Vatican in addressing the issue. In an interview, Rep. Steve King, a practicing Catholic, said the science around climate change was "unpredictable" and asked, "Where's the nexus between that and the theology of the Vatican?"

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush found himself in hot water after he criticized the Pope for wading into climate politics, although he backed off the position Wednesday, saying he tries "to follow the teachings of the church."

The encyclical takes climate science head on, saying there's a "scientific consensus" that carbon-dioxide emissions resulting from industrial activity are the cause of global warming.

"We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay," the encyclical states.

The encyclical also targets people who deny the existence of climate change or fail to address it, saying, "Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change."

Asked about American critics who have said they won't follow the Pope because he is not a scientist, Cardinal Peter Turkson said that science was a "public domain" and that the church could "talk about subject matters not only because we are experts but because they concern and impact our lives."

"The Pope is not a scientist, but that does not mean he cannot consult with scientists," Turkson said, adding that he didn't think the politicians would avoid talking about issues they weren't experts in.

The Vatican took significant scientific input in drafting the document, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the founding director of Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, spoke at a press conference introducing the encyclical Thursday, joking that it could be the first encyclical to be accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.

Schellnhuber said that if the faith and science communities work together, "we can overcome these challenges," while underscoring the scientific backing for the encyclical.

Francis will address a joint session of Congress in September as part of a trip to the United States, where he's expected to discuss the climate-change encyclical among other issues.

The encyclical also emphasizes the role of international negotiations, saying that countries need to work together to confront the issue. Previous international talks, the document says, have been unsuccessful because wealthy countries have not taken responsibility for their role in generating the emissions that cause climate change.

Francis identifies specific previous international agreements on climate change, including the 2012 talks in Rio de Janeiro that he says produced "a wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document." The document also calls on people to put pressure on politicians to craft long-term climate policies.

The encyclical ties individual consumption and the consumer culture to environmental destruction, decrying humans who have destroyed resources without regard for their impact on others.

"Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage, and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries that are more powerful and pollute the most," the document states.

Speaking before the release of the encyclical, Turkson, who helped draft the document, said there are "crucial challenge that requires the development of adequate policies" on the international stage—and that the encyclical can have an impact.

The encyclical is meant to bring a moral and religious dimension to the environmental fight, saying that destruction of the Earth is a sin. The Vatican has also emphasized the ties between environmental protection and social injustice and poverty.

The document highlights several impacts of climate change on the poor, especially in the destruction of water and agricultural resources.

In a press conference Thursday, Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas—invited to show the broad impact the message is meant to have—said the message of the encyclical is that "ecological sin is a sin not only against God but also our neighbor." Zizioulas also called for all Christians to work together on environmental issues.

The document is also expected to make waves among secular organizations. In a statement Thursday, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said negotiators needed to "now seize this narrow window of opportunity and embark on ambitious actions and policies to help protect people and the environment. This is an urgent, moral, and ethical task for all of us."