Can the Pope Sway Climate Diplomacy?

The Holy See is no stranger to politics, weighing in on issues of abortion, the death penalty, and human rights among many others. This week, at a meeting of religious leaders and dignitaries, Pope Francis took one more big step to inject the Catholic Church–and, by extension, a billion of Catholics around the world–into the heart of the heart of the climate change debate.

The title of the meeting, on the sidelines of which Pope Francis and the Secretary General met, sums up the notion: “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity.”  Essentially Pope Francis, other religious leaders and Nobel Laureates gathered to say that “the garden” of Earth is a God-given gift and it is humanity’s responsibility to protect it for ourselves and future generations.

At the meeting, Vatican officials also signaled that a long-awaited encyclical, or papal letter to all bishops of Roman Catholic Church, will be issued in June to address issues of a sustainable future and climate action. And the timing of this June release could be instructive. The next round of climate talks is taking place in Bonn, Germany during the first two weeks of the month, with the final round set to take place in Paris this December.

So, could the encyclical and Papal activism on climate change sway international diplomacy in any real meaningful way?


The latest argument for climate action will likely not have an impact on the policy level from most countries. Moral imperative or not, “climate change is not viewed as a technical problem, much less a crisis, but rather as a conventional matter of incentives,” as David Roberts of Vox writes. Fossil fuels are the inexpensive way towards economic development in countries like India, China, and Brazil whose moral imperative to lift up hundreds of millions in their poverty-stricken nations outweighs the long-term commitment to the land or air quality. This is especially true when considering the massive amounts of money spent by the fossil fuel industry, in equal parts due to ability and a clear way to silence climate action advocates and scientists.

Perhaps though, the encyclical will change certain individual perceptions on how great the problem is and the need for action sooner rather than later. For years the subject of climate change has been in the realm of a set of politicians like Al Gore and Secretary of State John Kerry, in the United States. The popular fight for climate action was relegated to climate scientists and ‘tree hugger’ environmentalists.  It wasn’t until recently that celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo Dicaprio became heavily involved in the cause, which certainly has helped to mainstream the cause.

What the encyclical may be able to do is expand the notion of what it means to advocate for climate action by framing it in terms of, for lack of a better term, poverty reduction. The Church’s aid work in developing countries is well known and the encyclical could inspire some to think of climate action as one part of that aid work once people understand the impact fossil fuels and the resulting climate change can have on agriculture preservation, women’s rights, economic development, health, and even conflict. By framing climate action as international development work, the encyclical could bring into the fold more aid and development workers and with them donors. The papal activism may help reduce this tension between poverty reduction and environmental imperatives.

The latter is where the crux of the problem lies for the Paris Agreement – financing the necessary changes to make developing countries climate resilient and sustainable. Developing countries want the developed world to essentially compensate them for the damage done by the manufacturing and consumer culture that burns fossil fuels at a high rate, drills for oil on a daily basis, and emits massive amounts of carbon. The developed countries are reluctant to make any clear or ambitious financial commitments within the UN framework. The figures are staggering  (in the trillions) for green infrastructure investments, but the money is also necessary to prevent further damage to vulnerable countries from typhoons, hurricanes, drought, and floods.

It is probably a long shot to think that the encyclical will inspire national governments to increase their financial commitments to climate mitigation or adaptation. But at the very least, if Pope Francis frames climate action in the context of international development and poverty reduction it may inspire religious aid organizations–Catholic or not — to provide funds for climate-related projects from religious aid organizations.

A small shift in thinking, but environmental advocates say any positive change on that large a stage is better than what exists now. Pope Francis’ focus on climate change and sustainability in the moral lens is historic in and of itself, but helping to shape a portion of the debate in terms of poverty alleviation could be one way to make the encyclical have a wider impact.