Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Eco-Pope?

Pope Francis is emerging as a major climate change leader.

Pope Francis is planning to issue a major new edict on climate change to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in 2015. He’ll also address the UN General Assembly on the subject and call a summit of the world’s major religions to discuss how to address the problem.1

With these astounding actions this pope, still in the first years of his papacy, looks set to become the world’s leader on climate change, filling a decades-old leadership vacuum.

According to Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, the pope wants to influence 2015’s UN climate meeting in Paris. These increasingly frequent international summits on climate change have yet to substantially reduce emissions or even set major goals for participating nations. The United States has often been a hold-out, with President George H. W. Bush famously setting the tone at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, saying, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

Bishop Sorondo says that Vatican academics have bolstered to this remarkable move by the pope. “The idea is to convene a meeting with leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion,” he added. With this statement, the bishop connects climate change with human welfare, an important step in moving toward sustainability.

The Encyclical

After March the pope will also issue his rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology to the 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests in the world. They will in turn deliver it to parishioners. He’ll lobby politicians at the U.N. general assembly in New York next September to sign on to new anti-poverty and environmental goals.

Pope Francis has recently argued for major changes to financial and economic systems to reduce social inequality and environmental damages. At a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements in October 2014, he delivered bold and insightful remarks criticizing consumption-driven economics—and beautifully articulating the three pillars of sustainability: economics, social equity, and environment:

“An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money. Cash commands. The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.”2


Pope Francis may meet a lot of resistance to his efforts from church conservatives, particularly Catholic climate-change deniers and skeptics in the U.S. such as John Boehner and Rick Santorum. Dan Misleh, director of the Catholic climate covenant, notes that such people are vocal and have political clout, but the encyclical will bring joy to many other Catholics.

Pope Francis’ courageous stand is heartening, particularly in light of the leadership vacuum for climate change action at the international level, where major changes are needed. It’s also encouraging that he connects his climate change teaching with other environmental and social problems and the economic system underlying them. These connections strengthen his stance and embed it in the sustainability logic of mutual good for people and nature.

Moreover, in light of the powerful forces of denial affecting many U.S. conservatives, which I wrote about in my previous post, the pope’s brave stance stirs up new possibilities for breaking the logjam presented by conservative elites against climate change action. As I detail in that post, one of the psychological foundations of denial seems to be the self-identification of conservatives with their leaders, which leads them to reject information that threatens those leaders’ positions and strength.

Transformational Pope?

My hope is that with the pope’s explicit position on climate change, acceptance of factual information on the problem—that it’s real, human-caused, and damaging to nature and society alike—will become less threatening to conservatives who see the leader of the Catholic church as one of their own.

Thus, the pope’s new campaign could stimulate progress on two major fronts: in the ethereal world of international politicians and diplomats and in the opinions of everyday parishioners. This major two-pronged influence may be the best news on climate change to appear in decades.