Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ Encyclical: A Letter to the World on ‘Integral Ecology’

September 1, 2015, Department, by Robert García

Pope Francis will bring his message of caring about climate, creation and the poor to the United States when he visits New York City and Philadelphia, meets with President Barack Obama at the White House and addresses a joint session of Congress in late September. In this, the first encyclical (a teaching document issued by the pope) written entirely by Pope Francis, he focuses on caring for creation, not only the natural environment, our common home, but also the human sphere, particularly the poor. This encyclical is unique in several ways, the most notable being that it’s directed to every person living on this planet — encyclicals usually are addressed specifically to Catholic bishops. Yet, since its release in mid-June of this year, only three in 10 adults in the United States have heard about it. 

The encyclical can be read as a primer for the United States on inequality, environmental justice issues like climate and park access and programs like cap and dividend. Climate is a civil rights and moral issue, as well as a health, economic and environmental issue. The Pope intricately weaves moral and spiritual teachings with science, economics and politics, addressing environmental values as well as human dignity and human rights. An integral ecological approach hears “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Who Are the Poor and Disadvantaged in the United States?

People of color disproportionately suffer from inequality based on wealth and income. The median wealth of non-Hispanic white households was more than 10 times that of Hispanic households in 2013, and 13 times that of black households. A family headed by a black college graduate has less wealth on average than a family headed by a non-Hispanic white high school dropout.

Income inequality has exploded in the United States since the Reagan administration (1981–1989). The top 1 percent received 20 percent of the U.S. national income in 2013, compared to less than 10 percent in the 1970s. Blacks and Latinos at all education levels, including college and advanced degrees, earn less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Black unemployment is consistently double the non-Hispanic white rate.

People of color disproportionately live in poverty. About 25 percent of African Americans, 26 percent of Native Americans, and 22 percent of Hispanics lived in poverty, compared to 11 percent of non-Hispanic whites from 2007 to 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

Pope on Climate

Pope Francis teaches that climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. We are experiencing global warming, a rise in sea levels, an increase of extreme weather events and the worst draught in California history. Scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is from greenhouse gases released mainly as a result of human activity, with fossil fuels at the heart of the worldwide energy system. These gases (including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides) do not allow the warmth of the sun reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

Polls consistently show Latinos are more likely to view climate change as important to them personally. They are also among the strongest supporters of climate action, most willing to pay more for clean energy and most loyal green voters. These polls could have significant implications for the 2016 presidential campaign as both parties woo Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Climate worsens a range of health problems that are particularly problematic for Latino communities. Climate threatens the original homelands of many Latinos even more dramatically. Responding to the climate challenge can create jobs, improve health and reduce damage caused by reliance on fossil fuels. We can grow the economy and promote human health, the environment and equal justice at the same time. Environmental justice leaders support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, while calling for states to conduct compliance reviews under civil rights, environmental justice and environmental laws.

Pope on Parks

With regard to parks, the Pope writes: “Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.” When President Obama dedicated the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Southern California in 2014, he emphasized that there are not enough parks, especially for children of color and that this is an issue of social justice. Leaders of diverse groups have called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address parks as an environmental justice issue and to add park access to its new EJScreen tool.

Lack of parks, environmental degradation and adverse health effects are often associated with residential segregation. For example, in the 10 percent of the communities that are the most burdened by pollution and vulnerability in California, fully 89 percent of the people are of color and only 11 percent are non-Hispanic white. In the 10 percent of the communities that are least burdened, only 31 percent of the people are of color and fully 69 percent are non-Hispanic white. Statewide, the population average is 58 percent people of color. These figures are based on the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool.

According to Pope Francis, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth….Frequently, no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.” The City Project’s Robert García serves on the expert consultation panel for the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to implement Health in All Policies. The City Project advocates Health Equity in All Policies. WHO and PAHO should support a rights-based legal framework, relying on international declarations against discrimination, customary international law and domestic laws such as U.S. civil rights laws.

Pope on Human Ecology

The Pope highlights housing as an issue of human ecology. “Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families.”

In a victory for equal opportunity, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the right to fair housing to help move our country beyond a legacy of segregation. According to the court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project (June 25, 2015), the prohibition against unjustified discriminatory impacts under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 plays an important part in avoiding separate and unequal societies.

The Pope critiques unbridled capitalism, a culture of throw away consumerism, and a blind faith in market forces and technology. He also critiques, but does not condemn, carbon trading. He points out that market-based strategies alone will not solve the problems of environmental degradation, poverty and inequality. Ultimately, a market-based solution alone does not “allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” But, the Pope acknowledges that business can be a noble profession, “especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” 

There is no one solution to protect nature and the poor. The return to a progressive income tax with significantly higher marginal tax rates; a global wealth tax; full employment; cutting back consumerism; relying on renewables; a legal framework to protect civil rights, environmental justice, and health; educating young people on the values at stake as well as the science; a new international agreement on climate change to be discussed in Paris in 2015 – these are parts of the mass movement it will take to save ourselves, our children and our common home. As the Pope teaches us, “Human beings, too, are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So, we cannot fail to consider the effects of environmental deterioration on people’s lives, current models of development and the throw away culture.”

Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project, a nonprofit environmental justice and civil rights organization based in Los Angeles.