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Pope Francis: Climate activist?


Activist and pope - historically, they're not two words that go together. But they have over the past decade, especially when it comes to climate change. Pope Francis has made climate and the environment a central focus of his papacy. The first big moment came in 2015.


SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Francis describes the earth as mistreated and abused and urges everyone - individuals, families, local communities, nations and the international community - to listen to its groans.

DETROW: That was NPR's Sylvia Poggioli back in 2015 reporting on the release of "Laudato Si'," a major papal document called an encyclical where Francis urged the world to take climate change seriously and to cut back on material waste and consumption-centered lifestyles. Last month, he revisited the topic, issuing a new major writing called "Laudate Deum." Over the intervening eight years, the world has gotten hotter, and big climate solutions have failed to fully materialize. So it was notable how much the pope's tone had shifted. This document was much more scathing. Christiana Zenner is a professor at Fordham University who studied the pope's writings on climate change. She says the latest document reflects Francis' growing frustration.

CHRISTIANA ZENNER: In the 2015 bigger document "Laudato Si'," there was a lot more reflective, rhapsodic and almost devotional language. In this document, 2023, "Laudate Deum," there is pointed ethical diagnosis and critique of misunderstandings and willful ignorance.

DETROW: And that sense of urgency isn't just in writing. Pope Francis has announced his plans to attend COP28, the upcoming United Nations climate summit that brings together leaders across the globe to put together concrete plans to deal with climate change. So for today's Sunday cover story, we've just experienced the hottest summer on record. With extreme weather catastrophes around the globe, the leader of the Catholic Church is taking an even bigger role in climate activism. What does he hope to achieve, and how will his actions fit into his broader legacy? Pope Francis' latest document is as much a political writing as it is a moral one. It engages with climate denial. It also takes the powerful to task for choosing wealth over saving the lives impacted by climate change. Zenner says this sharper tone is much more clear about who's at fault and who needs to make immediate changes.

ZENNER: This document is a doubling down and an intensification of some of the rhetoric that was nascently present in "Laudato Si'" but has been amplified in substantial ways in "Laudate Deum." So whereas "Laudato Si'" was broad-based in very significant ways, "Laudate Deum" is shorter. It's focused. It's pithier. It's crankier. And it is focusing in on climate change in particular. Now, we know that climate change, climate crises - these have many different kinds of vectors - water, food security, migration and so forth. And so those topics also appear in this document.

But the pointedness of this document being about climate change, in particular the veracity of anthropogenic climate change linked to fossil fuel extraction and combustion, the complicity of contemporary economic paradigms and modes of power in perpetuating that dynamic and the disproportionate burden on the poor and vulnerable while rich nations continue to overconsume and do nothing - that is really the heart of this message. And the way that it is centralized and the way that it is absolutely unrelenting is distinctive. And I think that's true not only in relation to Pope Francis and his own writings but also in relation to pretty much any document at this level of authority from the Catholic Church.

DETROW: Yeah. So we are talking about this latest document in the context of Pope Francis making the decision to personally go to the next big climate summit, the next big COP, in a couple of weeks. I want to ask you about that choice. But first, can you tell me just how critical the pope is of world leaders, Western leaders in particular, in this latest document?

ZENNER: The in this document thinks that almost everything hinges on the success of the upcoming COP meeting, which is partly why he's going there. It's partly why he released this document, and it's partly why, in this document, he is hypercritical of Western developed - hyperdeveloped nations in particular, who, in his view, have become complacent and not lived up to the responsibility that is properly theirs on the world stage for leading on climate remediation and all sorts of related questions.

You know, it is no accident how this document is constructed. He starts out by citing the U.S. bishops on climate change. And that's a brilliantly underhanded move in some ways, brilliantly rhetorical move, because he then turns back at the end of the encyclical to say, you know, consumption, overconsumption in particular, is most pronounced in the United States. And so in paragraph 72, he says, if we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can see - and he goes on to talk about critiques of Western consuming lifestyles. So there's this kind of parabolic beginning and return to the question of how climate change is framed in the West and the failure of leadership to really address these questions.

DETROW: After reading through this and studying this, were you surprised or not surprised that Pope Francis has decided he's going to not only travel to the COP in a few weeks, but he's going to stay there for several days, he's going to make himself heavily involved in this conference?

ZENNER: I'm not necessarily surprised, but I'm delighted, and I think it indicates that the pope is willing to put his actions where his words are. You know, as Greta Thunberg said a number of years ago, blah, blah, blah. So there's the risk that leaders in positions of power will say the thing but not do anything about it. And so, in a way, Pope Francis in "Laudate Deum" is echoing her critique, but he's also going to the proceedings. And hopefully, his very physical presence there will be a reminder that justice, accountability to people worldwide and the flourishing of the earth now and in the future, as well as questions of poverty and the common good, are, in fact, central.

DETROW: That was Christiana Zenner, a professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University.

There's been a lot of buzz over Pope Francis' attendance at the upcoming climate summit. What does he hope to achieve?

NICOLE WINFIELD: I think he's hoping that this will kind of elevate what he has already said and been saying for many years but with a personal appearance in Dubai.

DETROW: Nicole Winfield is the Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press. She says this isn't the first time the pope has waded into real-world diplomacy.

WINFIELD: He has been very much on the world stage. He's had envoys going to Moscow and Kyiv. You know, he's trying to do what he can on that war. He's obviously desperately concerned about the situation in the Holy Land. Early on in his papacy, he and the Vatican helped negotiate, you know, the breakthrough agreement between the United States and Cuba that led to the detente. But in terms of actual outcomes, there's not a lot there, but he does bring to the table the moral authority of the papacy.

DETROW: Francis is about to turn 87. He's now more than a decade into his papacy, and Winfield says climate is a key part of his legacy.

WINFIELD: It is by far one of the most, if not the most, critical issue for him, and it's because he sees this as a very holistic issue. For him, this brings in issues of poverty, migration, war and peace. And when he addresses it, he addresses it from many different points of view and angles that shows that everything is interconnected. And so for him, it's - everything that matters right now can be pulled together and looked at through the prism of the environment and climate change.

DETROW: That's Nicole Winfield, who covers the Vatican for the Associated Press. Pope Francis hopes that by attending the COP28 climate summit, he can persuade world leaders into immediate action to address climate change. Can a high-profile pressure campaign like that work? We asked a journalist who covered several COPs. It's my co-host Ari Shapiro. Hey, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good to be on your show.

DETROW: So you've been to the big climate summit a couple years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, and you were at the one in 2015 that really produced the biggest outcome in recent memory, and that was the Paris summit.


DETROW: Generally speaking, for these big U.N. summits, how much of the outcome is kind of baked in going in? How much do the leaders kind of know what they're going to end this conference with?

SHAPIRO: The two conferences that I attended, it was very, very uncertain up until the last minute. Like, we were talking to negotiators from the U.S. and other countries, and they genuinely didn't know until the very end. And that's true of the big consensus agreement that hopefully comes out of the final negotiation. And it's also true of some of the smaller things that happen on the sideline. So, yeah, there's a lot of kind of formal pomp and circumstance, predetermined stuff that goes on. But there are also real negotiations where the outcome is not clear.

DETROW: So generally speaking, from your experience, it seems like a world leader with moral authority like Pope Francis saying, I'm going to show up, I'm going to spend several days at this conference and I'm going to try to pressure people to come together with a stronger deal - that's the type of thing that could actually affect the outcome.

SHAPIRO: Who's to say what will make the difference at the end of the day. The great thing about a COP is that it is one of the few times that the entire world comes together and focuses on climate. You know, you have world leaders from developing nations, from highly developed nations, countries that are typically at odds with one another that are all trying to hash this out, and just having a venue where that happens, where somebody like Pope Francis, who says, I want to talk to leaders from all over the world about climate can go to that place, and they're going to be there, and that's what they're going to be focused on - that's unusual. Will it actually make a difference in what the outcome is? Nobody can say. But just having that venue is something that wouldn't exist if you didn't have these kinds of gatherings.

DETROW: That is our in-house COP expert, my co-host Ari Shapiro. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Hardly an expert but you're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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