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The head of the world's largest Christian denomination called for "a new and universal solidarity" to fight climate change Thursday, warning that humanity risks a future of "debris, desolation, and filth."
The long-awaited encyclical from Pope Francis, titled Laudato Si — "Praise Be to You" — effectively puts the full weight of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church behind efforts to eliminate fossil fuels and head off the worst effects of global warming.
"Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain," Francis writes in the 184-page document. "We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation, and filth."
An encyclical is among the most authoritative statements of Catholic teaching that a pope can issue. And in releasing the document, Cardinal Peter Turkson, a top Vatican adviser, told reporters that Francis wants "to encourage a dialogue between faith and reason."
Laudato Si firmly embraces the scientific consensus that human carbon emissions are trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere, leading to an increase in global temperatures. Without action, the United Nations warns that global average temperatures will rise by 4 degrees Celcisus (7.2 Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times by 2100; a UN summit set for December in Paris aims to hammer out a global pact to limit that increase to 2 C.
Francis warned that fossil fuels must be "progressively replaced without delay" — but until cleaner energy sources become widely available, "it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions."
"Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age," he wrote. But the world's business and political communities haven't responded "with the urgency of the challenges facing our world," and environmental summits have failed to find "truly meaningful and effective global agreements."
Francis roots his concerns in both the Old and New Testament — in the book of Genesis, which charges mankind with "the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations;" the teachings of Jesus, a carpenter who "worked with his hands, in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship;" and the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology and the pontiff's namesake.
"We need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair," he wrote.
The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 18, 2015
These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 18, 2015
The deterioration of the environment and of society affect the most vulnerable people on the planet.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 18, 2015
Environmentalists cheered the document. Andrew Steer, the head of the World Resources Institute, said Francis has brought "moral clarity" to the problem and adds to the pressure on governments to solve it.
"Top scientists, economists, business leaders ,and the pope can't all be wrong," Steer said in a written statement.
"A growing body of evidence affirms that smart climate action is consistent with a more equitable and economically vibrant future," he added. "Taking climate action will create a safer and more prosperous world for all people."
And investor and green-energy booster Tom Steyer, the founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate, said in a statement that Francis is adding his voice to a chorus that now includes the top ranks of industry and the US military, which sees climate change as a "threat multiplier."
"If not religious, military, or business leaders, who are elected officials listening to when it comes to climate change?" Steyer said. "It is time for our leaders to heed these voices and embrace solutions to the climate crisis."
But while the concept of climate change driven by industrial carbon emissions may be accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists, it remains politically controversial in the United States, the world's second-largest emitter.
Ahead of the encyclical, mining company Arch Coal distributed talking points to Capitol Hill that warned Francis was consigning the world's disadvantaged to "energy poverty," depriving them of cheap electricity that makes clean water and better health care possible. And two Catholic Republican presidential candidates, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, urged Francis to stick to moral issues and keep the church out of a complex scientific issue.
Turkson said those politicians have the right to say the pope should butt out, but "I would not attach much credibility to that."
"We all talk about subject matters not always because we are experts in those matters, we talk about them because they concern and they impact our lives," he said. As for the critics, "I would imagine that when they themselves would become politicians without becoming scientists, they would not say or utter a word about science."
Francis wrote that the human mastery of technology has brought about life-saving advances, even beauty. But that development "has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience." That's led to a system that has failed to extend regular access to basic resources to the world's poor—who are now expected to bear the brunt of the rising seas, more intense storms and longer, deeper droughts that scientists say will be the result of a warming world, he argued.
Humanity needs to employ the "positive and sustainable progress" of the past centuries in a new way, the pontiff wrote.
"Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities," he wrote.
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl