Pope Francis on Thursday called for immediate changes in human behavior to fight global warming and save the environment, saying damage caused by contemporary lifestyles could leave future generations in a world of filth.
In a powerfully worded encyclical, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church chastised those who would deny a human connection to climate change. Francis declared that the planet was indeed growing warmer and that the dangerous trend was due largely to a culture of instant gratification.
Tragically, he said, people have grown increasingly self-obsessed, ever more distant from nature and alarmingly preoccupied with technological novelty.
"Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain," Francis wrote in the highly anticipated encyclical, or teaching document, released Thursday. "We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet's capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes."
At a Vatican news conference, Cardinal Peter Turkson, who wrote a draft of the document, said humanity is facing a "crucial challenge" that needs to be addressed through dialogue.
"For Pope Francis it is imperative that practical proposals not be developed in an ideological, superficial or reductionist way," he said.
Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church, said the environmental crisis was also a spiritual problem caused by the rise of individualism and a greed for personal happiness.
He warned that it could leave future generations to inherit a damaged world if not addressed.
"The pursuit of individual happiness has been made into an ideal in our time," he said. "Ecological sin is due to human greed, which blinds men and women to the point of ignoring and disregarding the basic truth that the happiness of the individual depends on its relationship with the rest of human beings."
He said the ecological crisis was growing in conjunction with the spread of social injustice. "We cannot face successfully the one without dealing with the other."
A draft of the more than 180-page document titled "Laudato Si" (Be Praised), had been leaked to the Italian press this week, but even long before that, parties on both sides of the highly politicized global warming debate had been preparing for its release.
President Obama said he looked forward to discussing the issues with the pope.
"I welcome His Holiness Pope Francis' encyclical, and deeply admire the pope's decision to make the case — clearly, powerfully, and with the full moral authority of his position — for action on global climate change," Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the pope's message applied to everyone regardless of their faith.
"We all have a responsibility, as the pontiff reminds us, to do better — by the planet and by our fellow human beings," Suh said. "We all are paying a high price for rising seas, expanding deserts, blistering heat, withering drought, raging wildfires, floods, storms and other hallmarks of climate change," Suh said. "But some are bearing a greater burden."
Craig Groves, executive director of the Science for Nature and People partnership, said the group applauded the pope "for standing up for the fundamental values of nature."
"We also welcome the grounding of the church's views in science, which transcends national and religious boundaries," Groves said.
Those who dispute the cause and pace of global warming roundly criticized the religious leader for weighing in on the topic. Some said they hoped the pope would not take the next step and lobby for a new climate treaty at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris this year.
"Despite the media's portrayal, this is ultimately not a climate change encyclical, as only 2% of the encyclical deals with climate at all," conservative publisher Marc Morano wrote in a statement released by the Heartland Institute. "The irony is that the people who are lauding the pope's position on climate disagree with just about everything else he stands for."
At the Vatican news conference, Turkson addressed critics who say that Francis should not weigh in on matters of science.
"That the pope should not deal with science sounds a bit strange, since science is in the public domain," Turkson said. "It's a subject area that anyone can get into."
Asked how he would respond to conservatives who say they will listen to Pope Francis on matters of spirituality but not about politics or economics, he said that they had "freedom of choice" to make the distinction, but that he did not agree there should be an "artificial split" between religion and public life.
In a final comment directed at political figures who might criticize Francis' intervention in the climate change debate, Turkson said, "I would imagine that when they themselves become politicians ... without being scientists, they will not say or utter a word about science." His comments were met with loud applause.
In the encyclical, Francis said that this "postindustrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history," and that the cause of degradation was "profoundly human."
A "disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary" as well as a "use and throw away culture" were at the root of the problem. He likened this self-obsession and unconcern for nature to abortion.
"How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?"
A Pew Research Center survey published Tuesday found that U.S. Catholics were as divided over the topic of global warming as were Americans generally, and that these differences fell heavily along political party lines.
Although about 7 in 10 U.S. Catholics said they believe the planet is getting warmer, this view was much more prevalent among Catholic Democrats, 85% of whom said we live in a warming world. Among Republicans, however, slightly more than half of Catholics were inclined to agree, researchers said.
The trend was similar when it came to the question of whether Catholics believe humans are causing global warming. Although slightly fewer than half of all U.S. Catholics said they believe this is the case, 62% of Catholic Democrats and 24% of Republicans agreed. The response was nearly identical when U.S. Catholics were asked whether they believe global warming is a very serious problem.
Among the U.S. public as a whole, belief that global warming is occurring is nearly twice as common among Democrats as Republicans (86% to 45%), according to Pew researchers.
"The view that global warming is caused by human activity is roughly three times as common among Democrats as among members of the GOP (64% vs. 22%), as is the view that it represents a very serious problem (67% vs. 31%)," they wrote.
In addressing a solution to human-caused climate change, Francis wrote that "technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay."
The same ingenuity that provided humanity with extraordinary technological progress has so far proved incapable of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide, Francis said. This failure pointed to a deep need for humanity to change its relationship to nature, but also to one another. Free-market policies that ignored damage to people or the environment must be changed, while income and resource inequalities also need to be addressed.
What was needed, Francis wrote, was a global consensus that could lead to the planning of sustainable and diversified agriculture; better forest and marine management; development of renewable and less polluting forms of energy; and universal access to drinking water.
Ultimately, however, people must aim for a new lifestyle, the pontiff wrote.
"Humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with tedious monotony."
"Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age," he wrote. "But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur."
Times staff writer Morin reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Boyle from Dublin, Ireland.