Pages 10-11: Pope Francis’s Environmental Encyclical

The text of the casebook mentions Pope John Paul’s January 1990 encyclical on “Peace with All Creation.”  On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis issued a new environmental encyclical entitled Laudato Si (Praise Be to You) On Care for Our Common Home.  The encyclical was published in eight languages.  A copy in English is available online at:  When he was selected in 2013, Argentine archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name Francis to honor St. Francis of Assisi, “the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology.” The encyclical reviews the history of the Catholic Church’s concern for the environment, noting Pope John XXIII’s concern over the testing of nuclear weapons in 1963, Pope Paul IV’s condemnation of environmental degradation in 1971, and statements of environmental concern by their successors.  Declaring that God has entrusted the world to humans, Pope Francis states that nature is misused when it is viewed as property we use for ourselves alone.  He notes that many religious traditions properly view activity that harms the environment as a sin.  The Pope urgently appeals “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”

The encyclical presents a solid discussion of the causes and consequences of climate change and it stresses the importance of shifting away from highly polluting fossil fuel energy sources to renewable energy, something that has caused great distress to the fossil fuel industry and the climate deniers it promotes. It stresses that access to safe drinking water should be considered a fundamental human right and it strongly emphasizes the importance of protecting wetlands and preserving biodiversity.  Importantly, the encyclical declares that the biblical reference in the book of Genesis to man having “dominion” over the earth has been incorrectly interpreted to permit unbridled development (“the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures”).  Rather, it argues that “our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” and that the right to private property is “not inviolable,” but rather subject to a “social mortgage.”

The gist of Laudato Si is that mankind has a strong moral obligation to protect the environment that has not been honored despite repeated global environmental summits.  As a result we face an “ecological crisis” that particularly harms the poorest and most vulnerable.  We must pursue intergenerational equity and hear “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (emphasis in original).  The encyclical emphasizes “how everything is interconnected” and that various factors such as loss of freedom, violence and corruption can undermine the effectiveness of legal institutions (“Laws may be well framed yet remain a dead letter. Can we hope, then, that in such cases, legislation and regulations dealing with the environment will really prove effective?”). Laudato Si praises the Montreal Protocol, the Basel Convention, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  It endorses the precautionary principle and applauds the1992 Rio Declaration, but decries the scant development of global environmental norms since then. 

Significantly, Pope Francis stresses the importance of developing effective national environmental laws and regulations (“Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls. Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”). He also notes the importance of continuity (“policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government. Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term. That is why, in the absence of pressure from the public and from civic institutions, political authorities will always be reluctant to intervene, all the more when urgent needs must be met. To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics.”).  Pope Francis argues that laws, even when enforceable, will not alone bring about the necessary changes without ecological education that motivates individuals to change their behavior.

While Pope Francis has received high praise for Laudato Si, some parts of it have caused controversy even within the environmental community.  He criticizes carbon trading as a possible “ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries”. This led one prominent environmental economist to denounce Pope Francis as a representative of the views of “a small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order [and] fearful of free markets.”  The Pope does argue that market forces cannot adequately protect the environment and he identifies “the increasing use and power of air-conditioning” as an example of “harmful consumption.” He criticizes those who blame environmental degradation on population growth in developing countries and asserts that an “ecological debt” is owed by the “global north” to the “global south.” He argues for “redefining our notion of progress,” noting that “technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.”  Pope Francis astutely observes that the term “sustainable growth” often is used as “a way of distracting attention and offering excuses” reducing “the social and environmental responsibility of businesses . . . to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.”


Lead in Drinking Water in Flint, Michigan. For more than a year from 2014-15 impoverished residents of Flint, Michigan were drinking lead-laden tap water that poisoned their children. How could this happen in the 21st century in the most developed country in the world? It seems astonishing that government officials failed promptly to inform Flint residents that their water was poisoned. The Flint tragedy originated with the appointment by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder of Darnell Earley as emergency manager for Flint. To save money Earley decided in April 2014 to shift the source of the city's water supply to the polluted Flint River. Because Flint River water is highly corrosive, lead from pipes in Flint's water supply system leached into the drinking water, poisoning Flint residents. Shockingly, after test data revealed the lead contamination, state and federal officials failed to inform Flint residents. Officials initially denounced private groups who tried to publicize test results. Yet when General Motors complained that the water was corroding parts at a plant in Flint, government officials quietly reconnected the plant to its former water supply.

The Flint tragedy dramatically highlights an environmental justice problem—environmental risks continue to be disproportionately concentrated on poor and minority communities. Flint is a majority African-American community with more than 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line. In 1982, columnist George Will wrote a remarkable column opposing the Reagan administration's effort to allow more lead in gasoline. Entitled “The Poison Poor Children Breathe,” Washington Post, Sept. 16, 1982, at A23,Will observed that "the problem of lead in the environment . . . is a childhood health problem that illustrates how society's hazards are often distributed regressively - persons lowest on the social ladder have special handicaps for climbing." Will noted that "[a]ny childhood disease that threatened affluent children as lead poisoning threatens poor children would produce public action faster than you can say 'swine flu'." The same is true today, as illustrated by the Flint tragedy. Government officials in Flint responded promptly to GM's complaints about the water, but its poor residents were not warned of the hazard.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report. In September 2016 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report critical of EPA’s environmental justice efforts.  The report found that EPA had largely failed to protect communities of color from the effects of pollution.  It concluded that when EPA is faced with environmental justice concerns it does not act until it is forced to do so.  U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Environmental Justice: Examining the Environmental Protection Agency’s Compliance and Enforcement of Title VI and Executive Order 12898 (Sept. 2016).

Trump Administration and Environment Justice. In response to a written question submitted during his confirmation hearings, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated that he is “familiar” with the concept of environmental justice.  Pruitt acknowledged that the EPA “administrator plays an important role regarding environmental justice.” He stated that “I agree that it is important that all Americans be treated equally under the law, including the environmental laws.”  Although he has not altered President Clinton’s environmental justice executive order, President Trump has proposed to completely eliminate funding for the agency’s environmental justice initiatives.  In March 2017, Mustafa Ali, leader of EPA’s environmental justice efforts, resigned in protest of these funding cuts.


    In May 2017 Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued an order requiring his department to reassess management plans for ANWR and to update old estimates of the amount of oil located there.  In September 2017 it was reported that the Interior Department is considering opening ANWR to exploratory seismic drilling by amending an old regulation that had restricted such drilling to the period from October 1, 1984 to May 31, 1986.  The proposal simply would eliminate those dates from the old regulation, opening up ANWR to exploratory drilling. Lisa Friedman, Interior Dept. Proposes Drilling Within Arctic Refuge, Angering Environmentalists, N.Y. Times, Sept. 17, 2017, at 21.

    On December 22, 2017, President Trump signed into law the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, which contains a provision opening ANWR to oil drilling.  The provision was added at the behest of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a long-time supporter of drilling ANWR in order to increase royalties to be received by the state of Alaska.  The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 51-48 under a “reconciliation” procedure that avoided the need to obtain 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.  It was argued that because the measure would raise revenue from oil royalties it was germane to the tax bill.  At a White House celebration following passage of the tax cut legislation, President Trump boasted that he had been able to overcome more than 40 years of opposition to opening ANWR and he congratulated Alaska’s long-time Congressman Donald Young, though calling him “Dan” by mistake. It will take considerable time before any drilling is done in ANWR and with oil prices much lower than in decades past, it is unclear how keen oil companies will be to drill there.


    Despite spending more than $7 billion over nearly a decade on the project, Shell announced in September 2015 that it would stop drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast “for the foreseeable future.”


In February 2015 President Obama vetoed legislation seeking to force him to approve the pipeline.  He argued that environmental reviews of the new pipeline route had not yet been completed.  After the reviews were completed, President Obama announced in November 2015 that he was denying a permit for the pipeline to cross into the U.S. because the oil it would carry would exacerbate the climate change problem. "America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change, and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership," Obama stated. In March 2017, President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s decision to veto the pipeline.  Despite Trump’s approval, it is unclear whether the pipeline will be built because the economics of the project no longer look compelling to the companies involved.