Future Tense

Pope Gets a Little Apocalyptic in Leaked Draft of Climate Change Document

The pope’s message was a stark rebuke of global inequality and a call to “rethink” humanity’s relationship with the Earth.

Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

A nearly final draft of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated letter to the world’s Catholics was leaked by the Italian newspaper l’Espresso on Monday. In it, the pope makes a human rights case for bold action on the related problems of climate change and poverty. He argues that the continued use of fossil fuels and the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” pose “grave consequences for all of us,” especially the world’s poor—and he urges “urgent” action.

A Vatican representative called the leak a “heinous act” and said that this version isn’t final. Still, it seems fair to assume that this is fairly close to the document that will be officially released Thursday.

Almost immediately after the 192-page draft appeared online, climate Twitter exploded:

We wanted to avoid Google Translate curiosities such as this:

So Slate enlisted the help of culture intern Marissa Visci and photo editor Juliana Jimenez, both Italian speakers, to find the highlights. The quotes that follow are roughly paraphrased, but they should give you a sense of what to expect from the final English-language version.

Using section headlines such as “The Crisis and Consequences of Modern Anthropocentrism,” the text is both a practical and theological treatise on the ills of the 21st century. It’s pretty apocalyptic, which I suppose is appropriate coming from a pope. “The catastrophic predictions now can no longer be looked on with contempt and irony. We can leave to future generations too many ruins, deserts and filth,” the encyclical will say.

At one point, the pope writes, “The most extraordinary scientific progress and the most prodigious economic growth don’t necessarily give authentic social and moral progress to humanity.” That basic fact requires an “urgency and necessity of a radical change in human conduct” and “a dialogue about how we’re building the future of our planet.” A key theme is that humanity is “part of creation, and everything is connected”—“we are not God,” the pope will say. Throughout, the pope advocates for a radical transformation of human society, saying “the middle ground is only a small delay in disaster.”

The pope’s encyclical—a term used to describe a specific type of letter that describes the pope’s view on a significant topic—seems written on behalf of the world’s poor. In the letter, Francis cites both science and Scripture to make his case for climate action.

“We’ve glossed over the power relationship of a capitalistic society, and it’s put us on the path to not only destroy creation but humanity as well,” the pope will say.

The encyclical promises to form a cornerstone of Francis’ papacy. Upon his election, he chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi—the patron saint of animals and ecology. But Francis isn’t the first pope to focus on the environment. Both of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, wrote extensively about the special burden environmental destruction places on the poor. However, neither so firmly inserted himself into the political debate on climate change. In September, Francis will address a joint session of Congress—the first time a pope has done so—as well as an assembly of world leaders at the United Nations in New York. Vatican officials have said the release of the encyclical is specifically meant to influence negotiations on a global climate agreement in Paris this December.

The pope, who repeatedly refers to Earth as our “home,” laments the “quickening of our pace of life” and says that “our problems are intimately linked to a throw-away culture.” He contrasts humanity’s “frantic pace” with the slower, natural pace of biological evolution and atmospheric changes, saying that “this change is affecting the dynamics of an already very complex system.”

No one is more affected by those changes than the world’s poor, Francis will say. “There is an ecological debt that the North has to the South,” he says. While Francis puts the alleviation of world poverty on the same level of import as tackling climate change, he says that “poor countries [that] want their chance to grow along the same path of industrialization” should “rethink that path.” Instead, he said, “poor countries need to count on the help of the countries that have grown at the expense of much current pollution of the planet.” A $100 billion per year fund to aid the transition of poor countries to carbon-free economies is a key negotiation point in international climate negotiations at the moment.

The pope will specifically call out multinational corporations whose operations are “hugely contributing to the impoverishment of the land,” leaving pollution and “lifeless villages” in their wake.

To combat these threats, Francis proposes several lines of action that will “help us to escape the spiral of self-destruction in which we are sinking.” For instance, he calls solar power “ethical,” but he notes that it requires oversight to make sure its deployment in developing countries is fair.

Francis also specifically condemns carbon emissions trading schemes, most recently advocated for by the global airline industry, saying that while it appears to be a “quick and easy solution,” it instead “may become a device that allows you to support super-consumption.”

But he argues that the most important thing is to change the way we think about our relationship to the world: “Unfortunately, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis are frustrated not just by the refusal of the powerful, but also because of lack of interest among the rest of us. Denial of the problem also occurs in wanting to be comfortable and a blind trust in technical solutions.”

The pope’s boldest proposal is for the creation of a “true world political authority” that would be tasked “to manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis, to prevent deterioration of the present and subsequent imbalances; to achieve integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to ensure environmental protection and pursuant to the regulations for migratory flows.”

For these reasons, Francis says it’ll take more than technological and political intervention to create lasting solutions to climate change: “In a corrupt culture, we can’t believe that laws will be enough to change behaviors that affect the environment.”

To do that, Francis proposes getting out of your house and taking a hike, literally. “The environment is also a way of communing with the divine,” he will say. This has a root in recent science: A recent study showed that environmental values are shaped by interacting with friends and neighbors more than family, which can help to broaden perspectives. Francis even proposes a new prayer to facilitate our connection with nature.

“Living in environments deprived of harmony can cause inhuman behavior and leave inhabitants susceptible to corrupt organizations: for instance, the social anonymity of living in the suburbs. However, love is stronger, and once ego and selfishness are overcome, living in crowded conditions can also cause a sense of community and lead to improvements in this area,” the encyclical will say.

In a recent survey, American Catholics overwhelmingly acknowledge humanity’s impact on the global climate system—acknowledging climate change at an even greater rate than Americans as a whole—though they’re skeptical we’ll do enough to slow its effects. That’s the pessimistic disconnect Francis is aiming to change.