Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Pope calls for intellectual conversion over climate



Pope Francis sprouts plants and trees, Trump sprouts smoking chimneys. Cartoon by Chris Johnston

World Environment Day this year occurs in the ominously still eye of the storm. The strident public debate about the reality of global warming and the threat it poses to the world has died down. Few knowledgeable people deny its reality, the risk it poses or the contribution of human actions to it.

At the same time, however, powerful interest groups and politicians — most recently Donald Trump — appeal to the need for economic growth in order to weaken any international commitment to targets for reducing carbon emissions. Moreover their moves do not cause public outrage. It appears that people are fatalistic about the environment, feeling helpless to affect the future. So they confine their attention to their immediate interests. All the while global warming does not sleep.

At such a time it is worth returning to Laudato Si, Pope Francis' passionate exhortation to care for the environment. The most significant insight of the document is that the environment is not something outside ourselves that we possess and with which we must deal. We are part of the environment.

When we speak of the environment we are speaking of ourselves. When we respect or exploit the environment, we are respecting or exploiting ourselves. When we safeguard or put at risk the future of the world, it is our own future and that of our children that we risk or protect.

Pope Francis' assertion builds on the Catholic understanding that we are not individuals who sink and swim, rise and fall by ourselves, but that we live and die through the quality of our relationships. We depend on one another to be born and educated, for the technology we use and for the institutions that keep us healthy and safe and enable us to prosper.

We also depend on the world around us for air, water, warming and cooling, for food, clothing, beauty and music. If we are to flourish enduringly we need to shape a world in which everyone and every thing flourishes.

Our welfare depends on respectful relationships with other people and the natural world, and especially the most vulnerable. If competition and exploitation dominate, individuals and groups will become wealthy and powerful at the expense of others and of the natural world. But eventually the damage caused by gross inequality to relationships between people and the world will fracture the trust on which economic growth depends. They will leave to their children a divided society and a damaged world.


"Care for the environment demands a vision of one another and of the world as inextricably linked so that we take personally the exploitation of the environment and of vulnerable people."


Pope Francis devoted much of his exhortation to insisting that the protection of the environment and the shaping of economic settings go together. Both are human activities, and must be regulated so that economic activity respects the environment, and serves the common good and particularly the most vulnerable.

He focuses on the conjunction of crushing poverty and the exploitation of the environment for profit to make his point. He argues that if we trash the environment we trash one another. If we exploit one another, we shall also exploit the environment.

World environment day reminds us that we cannot rescue the world from the consequences of global warming simply by better technology, clever solutions and self-interested rhetoric. Care for the environment demands a vision of one another and of the world as inextricably linked so that we take personally the exploitation of the environment and of vulnerable people.

This vision calls for a conversion from competition to cooperation, from exploitation to respect, from disregard to attentiveness, and from greed to thankfulness. It has consequences for personal habits as well as for national priorities. Personal conversion will create public attitudes that will prevent self-interest from shaping public decisions, such as the approval and financing of new coal mines.

Public recognition of the threat to the environment has largely been won by evidence provided by scientists. But by itself that has not been enough to force governments to address the seriousness of the threat. In a culture which gives precedence to individual choice and competition, putting little weight on interdependence, people cannot imagine how their personal decisions can make a difference to society. They see divesting, limiting travel, turning to renewables and living simply as no more than idle symbolic gestures. That is why they retreat into helplessness and apathy.

In this context the Pope is right to appeal for an intellectual conversion: to imagine ourselves as interdependent members of a community and world in which all our personal decisions affect other people and the natural world. That conversion both enables us to recognise the reality of our situation and gives us hope in addressing it.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

World Environment Day is Monday 5 June.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, World Environment Day, climate change, Donald Trump



submit a comment

Existing comments

Taking things personally is the way to recognise our interdependence and our addressing of the situation we share. Technology is not going to solve the predicament we find ourselves in. It's a difficult ask though to make a start on trusting that small steps can lead to a better place for all of us.

Pam | 03 June 2017  

Perhaps Pope Francis might achieve greater credibility if he promulgated his solution for the poor within the context of his vision of exterminating the wealth generation that comes from the environment and contributes so much to the emancipation of the poor. While his great compassion for the poor is laudable he needs to strike some balance and wake up to the fact that not all the world is like South America.

john frawley | 03 June 2017  

I think this Pope has far wider credence than any of his recent predecessors. To that degree he is not just the 'Catholics' Pope' but someone who stands for decency and integrity on the world stage, a bit like Angela Merkel. Unlike Dr Merkel, he is not a politician and has to be careful he is not seen as interfering in politics per se.

Edward Fido | 04 June 2017  

Thank you for your wonderful words, Andrew. World Environment Day is an opportunity to reflect on how we depend on each other.

Tony | 05 June 2017  

There is indeed a great need for "an intellectual conversion". As in many matters, the human body provides a wonderful analogy for how things should work. Each body is made up of more living cells than there are people on the Earth, all are dependent on the proper function of the others, even though the majority of our cells are not human, but are bacteria living in our intestines, and on which we depend for our health and efficacy. As Dr Ross Walker points out, all our cells are "the basic units of function of our bodies". Once we restore our cells back to good health, our body easily follows suit. As the great Hunan Body/ the Human Race, We are interdependent social beings, both as individuals and as families, communities and nations. We should stop using the terms 'left' and 'right', and use 'social' and 'self/ selfish' instead, as more accurate descriptions

Robert Liddy | 05 June 2017  

The personal integrity of Pope Francis is clear. What is missing in his otherwise excellent analysis of environmental issues is the problem of an ever expanding human population. And what is missing here is his unwillingness to tackle the old chestnut of birth control, which has been holding back Catholic teaching for more than 50 years. For all of his humanity, Pope Francis appears to remand shackled to his celibate orthodox upbringing, which continues to struggle with the 'women' issue. The idea that the possibility of conception must accompany every sexual act sees the rightful place of women as incubators and carers. There is nothing wrong with motherhood (or fatherhood). But if it was always freely chosen, there would be fewer of us on the planet, less poverty and less stress on the environment.

Lawrence Moloney | 05 June 2017  

"Knowledgeable" people accept there is current global warming but the extent is argued. Satellites estimate 0.15degrees/decade. Models err predicting twice that rate. CO2 greenhouse-effect is accepted but expressed by climate sensitivity is uncertain with recent scientific papers continuing downward estimations (see https://landshape.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/6921/). Though human actions are increasing atmospheric CO2, "the risk it poses" remains contentious because of: (1) this acknowledged uncertainty about the potency of CO2 in raising temperature; (2) the risk of catastrophic global warming may be witheringly unlikely; (3) the cost-benefit analysis of switching from cheap abundant fossil-fuels is complex and depends, in part on the discount rate chosen (the cost of doing something now rather than in the future). Fr Hamilton’s article conflates the simple reality of modern global warming with complex issues which might be argued by informed people of good faith. However to disagree with any radical proposal is to “deny its reality”. Surely this is a “strident” approach. And especially dangerous when controversial scientific and economic issues are taken as so settled that a theological imprimatur is given.

Dr Richard Peppard | 05 June 2017  

Thus wrote India's Mahatma Gandhi: "Nature produces sufficient for everyone's need but not enough for everyone's greed." What is meant for the survival and well-being of future generations of citizens of the Planet need not be consumed or swallowed in a hurry by those privileged to be current guardians and stewards of our Planet.

Dr. Cajetan Coelho | 05 June 2017  

I completely agree with Andrew's commentary. Dr Coelho' s remarks quoting Ghandi are very valid. We waste enough food and other resources daily that if properly used, not abused , would more than adequately ensure a basic lifestyle for all the Earth's inhabitants and then some. The level of inequality in todays world and between nations is scandalous !

Gavin | 06 June 2017  

Thank you for this. One very major factor often not mentioned even in this context is unsustainable population growth and ways of reducing it. Sustainable Population Australia has much informed material on this subject.

John Bunyan | 08 June 2017  

Similar Articles

When cricket, work and Catholic teaching collide

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 07 June 2017

To consider cricket as work would strike many people as odd. They would see it as a hobby, a recreation, a game or a calling. Professional sportspersons receive little attention in Catholic social thought, which is a pity because a Catholic understanding of work provides a helpful perspective. Its crucial insight is that work is a human activity, and that each human being is precious, unique and needs to be respected. Neither people nor work can be seen as means to an economic end, or as expendable.