Pope Francis uses faith and science to discuss climate change (and fish!)

By Abigail Lynch

Though religion may seem an unlikely ally of science, the recent release of Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, entitled Laudato si’ (Praise be with you) on care of our common home is poised to galvanize a coalition between the two camps on the subject of climate change.  Pope Francis is the leader of the largest faith community in the world and polls indicate that he is one of the most trusted global leaders.  He just may be the advocate the climate change community needs to garner momentum for change.

Pope Francis cites climate change as an important problem for fish and other natural resources.
Pope Francis cites climate change as an important problem for fish and other natural resources. (Tânia Rêgo-ABr)

With climate change, according to Pope Francis, “we are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”  Perhaps this faith-science perspective is not so surprising considering that Pope Francis was, indeed, a scientist, serving as a chemist (as well as a nightclub bouncer!?!) prior to entering the seminary, and chose his papal name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment.  To develop the encyclical, he also enlisted the assistance of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences which includes academics and scientists from multiple faiths, agnosticism, and atheistism, including Stephen Hawking.

In the encyclical, Pope Francis delicately blends bible verse with current scientific research to add a moral element (from which most scientists shy away) to the discussion of climate change.  He frequently references “integral ecology” as a term that “transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”  He states that our “present ecological crisis” has “human roots” and that the underprivileged bear the brunt of the impact.

The goal of the encyclical is to promote “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”  The release time of the encyclical may also prove to be politically savvy – it is prior to the papal visit to the U.S. this fall (where climate change has already been a topic of discussion of presidential campaigns) and prior to U.N. talks on a global climate change later this year.  The encyclical is already topping international media headlines, bringing global attention to the issue of climate change – undoubtedly, a first step in starting the Pontiff’s “new dialogue.”

The encyclical letter from Pope Francis uses both science and religion to discuss climate change concerns.
The encyclical letter from Pope Francis uses both science and religion to discuss climate change concerns.

As this is the Fisheries Blog, it’s only apropos to include a reading of the encyclical specifically relative to fish.  Five of the encyclical’s 246 sections (approximately 2%) directly mention fish.  Pope Francis cites the importance of fish to biodiversity (e.g., coral reefs “shelter approximately a million species”) and fisheries to food security (e.g., “rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans…[feed] a great part of the world’s population”).  He expresses concern that subsistence fisheries, which feed the poorest people, are at high risk because they have limited resources to adapt to climate change.  He decries pollution from deforestation, agriculture, and industry; unregulated and destructive fishing practices, including cyanide and dynamite fishing as well as bycatch; and rising water temperatures – all human drivers of environmental change.

Expressing concern for environmental degradation (including fisheries systems) and the social implications for the communities that depend upon these systems, Pope Francis serves as a moral advocate for these important natural resources.  He advocates for an “ecological citizenship” which promotes and sustains “environmental responsibility.”  With his blended faith and science approach, Pope Francis just may be the voice needed to moderate climate change discussions, reduce the political polarity, and chart a course for the common good.

If you don’t wish to peruse the full-length version of the encyclical (almost 200 pages), below are the five sections that directly mention fish:

  1. Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
  1. Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures, many of them still unknown to us and threatened for various reasons. What is more, marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the world’s population, is affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species. Selective forms of fishing which discard much of what they collect continue unabated. Particularly threatened are marine organisms which we tend to overlook, like some forms of plankton; they represent a significant element in the ocean food chain, and species used for our food ultimately depend on them.
  1. In tropical and subtropical seas, we find coral reefs comparable to the great forests on dry land, for they shelter approximately a million species, including fish, crabs, molluscs, sponges and algae. Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline. “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?”[25] This phenomenon is due largely to pollution which reaches the sea as the result of deforestation, agricultural monocultures, industrial waste and destructive fishing methods, especially those using cyanide and dynamite. It is aggravated by the rise in temperature of the oceans. All of this helps us to see that every intervention in nature can have consequences which are not immediately evident, and that certain ways of exploiting resources prove costly in terms of degradation which ultimately reaches the ocean bed itself.
  1. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”.[26] For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.[27]
  1. In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

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