Laudato si’: Pope’s Warm Greeting for Warming Planet

Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

The most applauded encyclical letter/climate communication from His Holiness Pope Francis, Laudato si’, turned 7 this year. Subtitled “On care for our common home”, the letter updated the papal’s environmental views from Pope Pius XII’s natural resources rights to a more global extent. Laudato si’ amplifies the morality and ethical approach to the root cause of environmental problems we face today and its dire need for global, common consent to solve them. Its publication encouraged other Abrahamic excerpts to enrich the moral aspects of acting on climate change, and just in time for adding the discussion to the sustainable development goals and Paris climate accord launched later that year.

As a Muslim reading Laudato si’, the concepts of environmental care presumed in the encyclical were not that peculiar since Allah tasked every single Muslim as a Khalifah (Qur’an 2:30). Based on the trusteeship roles, Muslims are obliged to maintain the natural resources which are taken as an entrusted property that must be shared with other beings and passed to the next generation in the most perfect quality. Toward the resource consumption, Allah detested reckless exploitation and mismanagement (Qur’an 7:31) since Allah provides sustenance for all beings on earth. On the common theme of Laudato si’, the Islamic perspective offers a theocentric approach–a comprehensive and balanced plea for collective good for all created beings. Both the notions accept that the ecological problems happening right now are just a consequence of how far we stray from moral ideals.

Okay, enough with the divine order of caring for the environment because even without Laudato si’, Ulama’s declaration, and the Rabbinic letter, acting on climate change is very human: reacting, adapting, and solving problems is in our DNA. Laudato si’ and other documents just reiterate the importance of it and call for bolder action. But for me, there is also another reason why Laudato si’ is noteworthy, becoming a papal letter for ages, if not, one of humanity’s most important documents.

Laudato si’ influencing power

One of the scientific community’s most pressing concerns is how to properly disseminate the scientific issue to the general public without being a fearmonger, and climate communication is not an outlier in this phenomenon. Ereaut and Signit in 2006 recorded how climate messages were constructed as “awesome, terrible, immense, and beyond control”, mixing the alarmist-pessimist notes. This approach is deemed unproductive, as it failed to propel behavioral change to act swiftly. The behavioral bit has become essential in 21st-century climate communication as its scientific basis is not a “ wild west, uncharted territory” anymore. We are past the know-why point of climate change since the 1990s. The 2000s is the “working landscape”, turning overwhelming evidence into practical policy.

If we look into the history of climate communication, this mixed message has been a contentious debate about how to deliver climate information and later, incite action. One argued the effectiveness of the generalist approach so more audiences would be alarmed, and the other focused on the scientific explanation behind the information, but the two should agree that putting people (and nature) into focus is how climate communication should work. This is how climate communication integrated itself with other bodies of knowledge, including psychology and behavioral science, turning it into a new multidisciplinary field in its own right. The world had a successful environmental communication campaign of horrifying…… ozone layer depletion in the 70s. With effective communication, the right level of exposure, and global policy action, now it slowly recovered and is on track to be fully healed by 2050. At the very least, this is our benchmark for a proper collective response against climate change.

Another way to look at how effective climate messaging is is by dissecting them into several segments targeting various demographic groups. The purpose of the segmentation is to personalize the climate message, tailoring each message since every group has different levels and areas of concern. Message framing, even choosing the person who delivers the message itself has become an effective tool in audience segmentation. Debbie Dooley, conservative Tea Party co-founder/climate activist, uses terms like “energy independence” and “free-market energy transition” to push solarization efforts in Georgia and Florida’s Legislature. She became the leading climate messenger in conservative America, one of the most resistant demographics toward anthropogenic global warming.

Religious groups also become a prospective segment in climate communication. The Pope, with a high level of approval rating, is the perfect actor to deliver the message (at least to 1.2 billion Catholics). In 2014, Dr. Ramanathan experienced his encounter with the pope, personally asking the pope to “please ask people in his speeches to be a better steward of the planet” and then it goes beyond his request: an encyclical issued a year later specifically pressing the world to act on climate. From a climate communication perspective, Laudato si’ was a big success, contributing to a higher public engagement on climate issues. It affirmed that (1) religion can be a driver for action by putting a moral backdrop to the climate crisis and (2) a new segment of the audience was successfully untapped by Laudato si’, as conventional messengers like scientists, activists, and politicians failed to reach them. Indeed, religious figures are the (new) messengers, not only for divine order but also effective enough for climate awareness.

Finger-pointing and then holding hand

How Laudato si’ struck the technocratic paradigm is one of the interesting points of the encyclical. It refers to a sense of supreme ability in technological advancement capable of answering every question in the universe. With science and technology, humanity is inventive enough to come up with solutions to any problem they face, which Pope Francis agreed, inferred as “a product of God-given creativity” in Laudato si’. On the other hand, the technocratic paradigm makes us inconsiderate to the ethical sides of the problems and degrades the earth only as exploitable, infinite resources. Pope Francis warned that advancement has not been followed by progress in human responsibility and conscience. Global hunger, extreme poverty, and environmental pollution pop up as symptoms of this imbalance. In other words, every destruction on earth is just a product of anthropocentrism, and our world is deeply entangled in this worldview.

Preceding the pope’s critique of the technocratic paradigm in chapter three, chapter one dealt with what was happening on earth. Climate change and fossil fuels were mentioned first, and their intensive use in the current development model becomes the heart of the worldwide energy system. This part was bashed by the fossil fuel interest group, who argued that the pope failed to account for global energy poverty in which fossil fuel served as the base-load for energy generation. The group also defended the coal use as a greater good–an economic mobility for developing regions and struggling communities to rise out of poverty.

Four years later in 2019, the pope exhibited one of his messages: taking part in dialogue for global action. He sat with 70 executives from the energy industry to discuss their stances on climate change and request them to take part in the global transition to renewables. The dialogue results are the joint statement on carbon pricing and climate risk disclosure. Both of the communications manifest what the pope wrote on Laudato si’. In chapter five, the pope laid out integral ecology and its policy advice as a panacea for the disparity caused by anthropocentrism. Part of them was how broken the current carbon credit system, which only displaces the risk on poorer countries, and how the political and economic system must accommodate the climate risk discourses on the decision-making level.

Laudato si’ proves the papal capacity to create a table for the world to work on. Not only as a moral compass of who’s wrong and who’s to blame, but also taking a more purposeful role. The church is not a perfect party to act on climate, but they prepare themselves to face the issues and inspire others to proceed towards the climate goal.

Inspiring a middle-of-the-road solution

Back to the previous part, the key to the technocratic paradigm of fossil fuel is not barring it completely. The pope is aware of the convenience of fossil-based energy in social and economic mobility. Chapter one of Laudato si’ has already suggested transformation to renewable sources as a solution, softer and more practical alternative to break the fossil-based economy. With the technocratic paradigm worldview, there is always a middle-of-the-road solution to counter the extreme alternative.

One more example: Laudato si’ approach to the technocratic paradigm into population question. In paragraph 50, the pope addresses the construction of birth rate reduction policies as “reproductive health” to tackle the population growth issue that rests on a finite resource. In the same paragraph, Laudato si’ added the extreme consumerism and imbalance of population density that heighten the resource and pollution problems.

“Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.” — Laudato si’, paragraph 50.

Reading this paragraph, I assumed the pope was poking Ehrlich and Holdren’s 1971 equation where environmental impact (EI) is a principal function of population size, consumption, and technology level. The pope made a personal plea in Laudato si’ to rethink their consumption, as population growth is an important part of the church’s concept of integral development. Anti-consumerism is the halfway point for population growth.

Back to the population question, on more personal terms, Laudato si’ inspired me to search for a better solution. As a person who enjoys building system dynamics (SD) models (yes, including Jay Forrester’s world model), the population becomes a most simple building block in SD that turns into an omnipresent structure in every model. With my basic understanding of Ehrlich and Holdren’s aforementioned theory, solutions to reduce environmental impact are as easy as avoiding human overpopulation. Population control and birth rate reduction are customary recommendations in school reports I made. After grasping in Laudato si’, Malthusian solutions like population control are lazy and pessimistic. There are more far-reaching interventions from the SD models than steering how people reproduce. While reproductive health and family planning remain relevant for sustainability policy, behavioral changes toward responsible consumption are impactful measures to match what resources we have right now.

We can see how successful Laudato si’ became the heart of the church’s message on climate, and assimilated it into a local context. I happened to live near my local diocesan house and they have an outside banner, dated 2022, with the message “Bijak Menggunakan Bahan Bakar Minyak”. If that isn’t a consumption-conscious, climate-related language, then I don’t know what is. Many community-based climate movements were inspired by the encyclical. Laudato si’ also uses imageries to draw closer-to-home climate impacts and advice that lay people could follow, turning it into habitual change. Laudato si’ was precisely drafted to reach more readers, you don’t have to be an environmentalist, a catholic, or even a religious person to understand how environmental protection is morally correct.

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Oka Pradhita

Oka Pradhita

Emotionally invested in environmental issues, current affairs, books and tv shows.

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