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Why the Pope’s encyclical is about much more than climate change

This post was originally published on the World Economic Forum blog

While the main message from Pope Francis’s encyclical is the obvious and urgent need to act on climate change, this just skims the surface of this rich and far-ranging call to protect “our common home”. At 180 pages the text articulates in remarkable detail the depth and complexity of Earth and the changes it is undergoing, not in the language of standard religious texts, but often in the language of science.

The encyclical explores in especially great detail our current scientific knowledge of the Earth’s biosphere – the layer of life on Earth made up of all the millions of species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms and their ecosystems. It does so not only to highlight the tragedy (and moral or ethical dilemma) of its deterioration as we lose species and ecosystems, but also to highlight the “extremely high costs” of this loss to humanity, now and in the future. As plants and animals and their habitats disappear as a result of human activity, so too do the critical roles that they play in cycling nutrients, chemicals, materials, waste and energy through the earth system. By so doing the organisms in the biosphere remove pollutants from our water and air, regulate our climate, fertilise soils, pollinate crops and much more.  Furthermore, the genetic material making up the biosphere allows it to persist and adapt under changing conditions thus making the earth system more resilient to the changes which lie ahead.

The encyclical summarises recent scientific findings on the consequences of the biosphere’s deterioration for our quality of life – exploring not only the material impacts on societies and economies – an area that is receiving current attention in scientific, business and government circles – but also the impacts of changes in the spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural dimensions of our commune with nature. In this area, recent research has highlighted how declines in human interactions with nature, due to our increasingly urban and consumerist lifestyles, have consequences for our education, psychological wellbeing, health, happiness, rights and social cohesion. In the words of the encyclical: “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature”

While the encyclical highlights the risks we are posing to future generations, of real concern too are the impacts that declines in the environment are having now. The world is not an equitable place and there is an increasing realisation “that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. The current impacts of fishery declines, water pollution, sea level rise, loss of green space for education and recreation – are all felt first and foremost by the poor. This highlights the need for urgent action.

The encyclical points to positive examples of action to reverse the degradation of the environment, to clean up pollution, restore forests, protect species and renew urban green space. This is reflected in recent shifts in the way nature and the environment are included in decision-making of governments, businesses and development banks. While positive, these interventions are fragmented, local, and unable to contend with the global-scale nature of the environmental crisis. The encyclical points to the further failure of many of the current global policy attempts and agreements to move towards the implementation needed to stem this crisis.

Our current economic, social and political systems appear poorly suited for more integrated and global solutions required to address the challenges of improving living standards of the world’s poor, while safeguarding the Earth’s life support systems that underpin human life and wellbeing. The asymmetries and disconnections between our social systems, economic systems and environment are significant obstacles. Sustainable development in the 21st century requires explicit recognition that social and economic development are part of—and dependent upon—a stable and resilient biosphere.

There is now a recognised need to accelerate and scale actions in areas such as resilient and healthy cities, sustainable development planning and the finance sector. Furthermore, there is a need for a paradigm shift in these actions. A shift from incremental improvements to our current socio-economic development models to real transformative changes in our approaches to development. The encyclical provides insight into what these paradigm shifts might look like through its reference to the need for an “integral ecology” – a paradigm shift that recognises that everything is interconnected. In this vision, people and nature are not separate, but intertwined and in constant interaction with one another. The paradigm shift points to the need for more integrated and intertwined visions and solutions to the current social and environmental crises (which it highlights are not separate crises, but 1 complex global crisis).

The encyclical engages remarkably deeply with science, scientific evidence and the role of science in finding solutions to this crisis.  Science clearly has a role to play in moving towards sustainable futures. But a paradigm shift is also required from science, moving beyond current silos and its technology focus, to a science of collaboration across the disciplines, with society and decision-makers, to co-develop the knowledge and tools required to respond to the call from the encyclical for a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet”. This is precisely what the new international research programme, Future Earth, aims to do. In the last 12 months, Future Earth has developed and published an international research agenda and vision for scientists and stakeholders to rally around.