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Pope's Environment Encyclical: Francis Urges Revolution to Save Earth

It's an indictment of big business and climate doubters alike.
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VATICAN CITY — With a poet's lyricism, a former chemist's precision and a pontiff's moral thunder, Pope Francis recast humanity's relationship with nature in stark ethical terms, hoping to spur a warming, filthy world to clean up its act "before it's too late."

In issuing "Laudato Si," his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change, the pope on Thursday took an extraordinary approach to an environmental issue often framed in the dry language of science. Francis' teaching document is a melodic yet radical indictment, depicting a materialistic and wasteful society that is hurting the planet and its poorest people.

He challenges the world to stop pollution, to recycle and carpool and to do without air conditioning — and makes it a moral imperative.

"The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty," he writes.

The pope's "marching orders for advocacy," as the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls it, comes as the world nears make-or-break time for international climate change negotiations that start late this year in Paris.

Francis said he hoped his paper would lead both ordinary people in their daily lives and decision-makers at the Paris U.N. climate meetings to a wholesale change of mind and heart, urging all to listen to "both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has made the issue of climate change his top priority since taking the reins of the world body eight and a half years ago, thanked the pope "for taking such a strong stand on the need for urgent global action."

Invocation to climate talks

In some ways, the pope's encyclical and its prayers serve as an invocation to the climate talks.

"As we prepare for global climate negotiations in Paris this December, it is my hope that all world leaders — and all God's children — will reflect on Pope Francis's call to come together to care for our common home," President Barack Obama said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Scientific data released on Thursday backed up Francis' concerns. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided figures showing that last month was the hottest May around the globe in 136 years of global records. NOAA calculated that the first five months of 2015 made up by far the hottest year on record, with very real effects. For example, 2,200 people have died in India's heat wave.

Related: Will American Catholics Join the Pope on Climate Issue?

While the encyclical drew praise from church, science and government leaders, some politically conservative Catholics criticized its economic analysis, and some U.S. Republican politicians said religion had no place in climate policy.

Some in the fossil fuel industry took the unusual tack of citing Francis' focus on the poor, arguing that his thinking would hurt and not help the disenfranchised.

"It's a political issue," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. "Most people have their minds made up on this issue, so any more rhetoric about the issue doesn't really add a heck of a lot more to it."

Support from scientists

Scientists who for more than 50 years have been talking about the dangers of global warming say this could break the inertia that has characterized climate negotiations. With their data and computer models, scientists appealed to logic; the pope sought to engage the soul.

"This is exactly what we need," said Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who as an evangelical Christian has talked about faith and warming. "We need leaders who speak to values, connecting the dots between values and climate change."

John Schellnhuber, the German scientist credited with devising the internationally adopted goal of trying to prevent another rise of 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) in global mean temperature, said the pope is harnessing two "strong powers in the world."

"If faith and reason work together hand-in-hand, we can overcome this crisis," Schellnhuber said.

Theology of ecology

At the heart of Francis' theological argument is the concept of "integral ecology," which gives a more central role for the environment in longstanding Catholic social teaching by linking destruction of nature with injustices such as poverty, hunger, inequality and violations of human dignity.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said the encyclical wasn't a directive from Francis to people in politics or business that "you must do this."

"That doesn't appear in the document. He is saying, 'Here is the moral frame of reference. I would like that everyone would work together on this so we individually can get together and say what could we do,'" Wuerl said.

The encyclical covers all sorts of environmental issues, including waste, extinctions, genetically modified organisms and the lack of clean water. Addressing "every living person on this planet," Francis calls for a bold cultural revolution to correct what he said was a "structurally perverse" economic system in which the rich exploited the poor.

Targeting the doubters

Citing the deforestation of the Amazon, the melting of Arctic glaciers and the deaths of coral reefs, Francis rebuked "obstructionist" climate doubters who "seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms." And he blamed politicians for listening more to oil industry interests than scripture, common sense or the cries of the poor.

"The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," he wrote.

He praised a "less is more" lifestyle, one that shuns air conditioners and gated communities in favor of carpools, recycling and being in close touch with the marginalized. He called for courageous, radical and farsighted policies to transition the world's energy supply from fossil fuels to renewable sources, saying mitigation schemes like the buying and selling of carbon credits won't solve the problem.

The leading skeptic in the U.S. Congress, Republican Sen. James Inhofe, said he feared the encyclical will be used by "alarmists" to push policies that will lead to big tax increases. He said the poor will actually "carry the heaviest burden" of policies to phase out fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

Related: Investors Pledge $4 Billion to Fight Climate Change

The pope will address Congress in September and is expected to talk about the environment, but House leadership isn't promising action addressing the pontiff's concerns. "There's a lot of bills out there. I'm not sure where in the process these bills may be," said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican as well as a Roman Catholic.

On the eve of the encyclical's release, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, said he didn't believe "we should politicize our faith."

But in the encyclical, Francis argues that there really is no distinction between human beings, their faith and the environment. "Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth," he writes.