A day after taking a surprisingly deferential tone with climate change skeptics in the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis stood before the United Nations General Assembly to issue a soft-spoken but thunderous call for the world to address global warming, connecting the issue to the wider pursuit of equality, security and justice for all.
His speech, delivered in his native Spanish at the United Nations in New York, touched on religious persecution, suffering in the Middle East, and the threat of nuclear war. But the liveliest, most eloquent passages dealt with his twinned concern with poverty and environmental destruction.
He laid the blame for both on a kind of run-amok capitalism, a system that rewards “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity.” For the global elite, this system is a garden of plenty. But His Holiness is concerned with the global underclass, “the vast ranks of the excluded.”
“They are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the consequences of abuse of the environment,” Francis said, lambasting our “culture of waste.”
Throughout his hour-long address, the pope displayed a gloves-off punchiness and populist zeal that he’d avoided when addressing Congress just the day before. That speech has been a disappointment for progressives, who yawned alongside elected officials as Francis delivered platitudes such as, “I am convinced that we can make a difference.”
On Thursday, however, his rhetoric never flagged. He began by crediting the United Nations for its 70 years of success, without which “mankind would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities.” He added powerfully to Laudato Si, his recent encyclical on the environment, doing so with what sounded like an ear for political and religious opposition.
He argued for a clear “right of the environment,” premised on the unusually beautiful and non-bureaucratic idea that “we human beings are part of the environment” and must abide by its “ethical limits.” He ran with that logic, connecting the fate of the human body -- shaped as it is by physical, chemical and biological elements -- with the fate of the earth.
"The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species."'
“Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” Francis said.
Then he hammered those who have said that the Bible directs mankind to exercise dominion over nature. On the contrary, Francis said, “We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.”
Francis made clear once again that he is not interested in symbolism or solemn commitments alone. He wants to see action, “urgently needed and effective solutions.” And he highlighted two historic signs of hope.
There’s the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals, which should be adopted on Sept. 25, setting the agenda for the world for the next 15 years. And there’s the UN’s Paris conference on climate change, scheduled for December, where world leaders will gather to forge an agreement to reduce the emissions that cause global warming, compound environmental destruction, and ramp up inequality.
He said he was “confident” of the success of both efforts, but he also reminded the room of the price of failure.
“The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species,” Francis said. “Consequently, the defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself.”
Somewhat awkwardly, he turned that last line into an apparent dig at same-sex marriage and abortion, two bitterly contested issues for the church, citing “the natural difference between man and woman, and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.”
But environmentalists nonetheless celebrated the speech, and the return of a vigorous Pope Francis, the unexpected Green Giant of climate change. Notably, for those in favor of a climate deal in Paris, the diplomats at the United Nations seemed to celebrate the pope’s message as well.
“Upon all of you, and the peoples you represent,” he concluded, ahead of yet another standing ovation. “I invoke the blessing of the Most High, and all peace and prosperity. Thank you.”