The Pope’s Environmental Encyclical: Making it About Poverty, Not Politics

All eyes are on Washington this week as Pope Francis makes his historic first trip to the U.S. This morning, he’ll address lawmakers on Capitol Hill, marking the first time a Pope has addressed a joint meeting of Congress. Climate change is undoubtedly one if the issues on his agenda. Earlier this year the pope released his Laudito Si encyclical in which he laid out the moral case for greater protection of the environment, natural resources, and the Earth's climate. 

In addition to emphasizing how environmental destruction and natural resource exploitation harm the poor, the document specifically mentions the role of humans in contributing to climate change. Given the Pope’s popularity, and as the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics around the world, his decision to narrow in on environmental exploitation and climate change has garnered significant attention from all sides.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Pope’s message is the framing of climate change – an issue often focused on melting ice caps and polar bears – as one of poverty. Having traveled to numerous countries afflicted by floods, storms, droughts, and other weather and climate-related disasters, I can attest to what this looks like on the ground and why it is that these crises –which will only intensify in a warmer world – impact the poorest far more acutely and profoundly than the rest of us. 

In countries like Niger and Burkina Faso in West Africa’s Sahel region, which sit at the very bottom of the human development index, over 80 percent of the population is dependent on rain-fed agriculture to survive. Even slight shifts in rain patterns can push millions of people over the edge. That’s what unfolded in 2012 when poor rains led to a food crisis that affected 18 million people. In Burkina Faso, I met with families who were forced to sell their cattle in order to feed their families. As it usually takes over a year to save enough to buy a single cow, they told me it would take four or five years to get back what was lost. Compounding the problem is the fact that droughts and erratic seasonal rains are happening more frequently, giving them less time to recover from one crisis before the next one hits, pushing them into a downward spiral of deeper and deeper poverty.

Even in middle-income and developed countries, it is the poor who are hit hardest by extreme weather and climate variability. For example, of the four million Filipinos who lost their homes when Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines in late 2013, most were poor, landless fisherfolk who lived in informal settlements along the coast. Their plywood huts were no match for Haiyan’s 200 mile-per-hour winds or the 20-foot storm surge the typhoon brought with it. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid, most impoverished households will never fully recover from all that they lost. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Pope’s message is the framing of climate change – an issue often focused on melting ice caps and polar bears – as one of poverty.

We need not look further than our own borders for evidence of how extreme weather and climate change effects can disproportionately harm the poor. Following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, poor minorities not only had a far harder time accessing humanitarian assistance but also were displaced far longer than other sectors of the city’s population because they lacked the resources and safety nets needed to return home and rebuild their lives.

Worse yet, disasters and climate change threaten to undermine efforts by the U.S. and other wealthier countries to help poorer ones to develop. Economic disaster losses in developing nations over the last 20 years are estimated to amount to $862 billion– equivalent of one third of all development aid. Following the 2010 historic floods in Pakistan which displaced some nine million people, I met with a government official who told me the damage to homes, infrastructure, and agricultural land the floods left in their wake had set the country’s development back 30 years.

Unfortunately, the Pope’s decision to speak out on climate change has already become politicized. The upcoming Sustainable Development Summit in September, at which a new post-2015 development agenda will be launched, the December UN climate negotiations in Paris, and the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit all provide an opportunity for government leaders, policy-makers, and the public to focus on how better to deliver development, climate change adaptation, and humanitarian assistance to the poor, and in a way that increases their resilience to extreme weather and climate change effects. 

Let’s hope the Pope’s call on behalf of the world’s poor – and the opportunity to shift the issue to one of poverty – does not get lost in the usual politics.

This blog was updated from its original posting on June 27, 2015.