Pope Francis

Pope Francis says he wants to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home." (Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis recently urged all 7 billion humans to see Earth with fresh eyes. And not just any eyes.

"I exhort everyone to see the world through the eyes of God the Creator: the Earth is an environment to be safeguarded, a garden to be cultivated," the pope said on Earth Day. "The relationship of mankind with nature must not be conducted with greed, manipulation and exploitation, but it must conserve the divine harmony that exists between creatures and Creation within the logic of respect and care, so it can be put to the service of our brothers, also of future generations."

The pope wasn't just paying lip service in his Earth Day message. It was part of a broader campaign to dispel humanity's indifference about climate change — a campaign that's now shifting into high gear.

On Thursday, Francis released a widely anticipated encyclical on climate change, formalizing and elaborating his stance that we must protect our planet from ourselves. The 184-page document offers a holistic view of climate change as not just an environmental inconvenience, but as a self-inflicted wound on all aspects of human society. "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods," the pope writes. "It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."

A draft of the document had been leaked earlier in the week by the Italian magazine L'Espresso, an embargo breach that was condemned by the Vatican but did little to weaken the encyclical's impact.

Pope Francis

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

The encyclical, a papal letter to bishops about Catholic doctrine, is timed to influence humanity's sluggish struggle against climate change. The U.N. has spent 20 years trying to strike a global treaty for reining in the gases that alter Earth's climate, negotiations that are expected reach a pivotal point in Paris this December. Scientists say the chance to avert a climate catastrophe is quickly fading; the U.N.'s goal for the 2015 summit is to finally reach a globally binding pact on greenhouse gas emissions.

"The timing of the encyclical is significant," Cardinal Peter Turkson told an audience in Ireland earlier this year. "2015 is a critical year for humanity."

While Francis has hardly been shy about his thoughts on climate change, the encyclical is seen as a particularly historic step for the Catholic Church, and for humanity as a whole. It's well-known that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are primarily responsible for climate change, yet their consensus inevitably gains extra heft when it's so formally and thoughtfully endorsed by the pope. The global Catholic population is now more than 1 billion, or about 15 percent of our entire species, which gives the pope an audience few people on Earth could hope to rival.

A lot of work clearly went into this encyclical, and its cultural significance warrants a thorough reading. But for a brief overview, here are some highlights:

  • The document is titled Laudato Si, or "Praised Be." The phrase is a refrain from "The Canticle of the Creatures," a hymn composed in 1225 by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment as well as Pope Francis' namesake.
  • The draft is split into six chapters, the first of which is titled "What Is Happening to Our Common Home?" It tackles an array of environmental and social issues, including not just climate change, but also pollution, water rights, biodiversity loss, quality of human life and global inequality.
  • Francis acknowledges that climates can change naturally, but cites overwhelming evidence that "most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases released mainly as a result of human activity."
  • Genesis may grant humans "dominion" over Earth, he adds, but that doesn't mean we can do whatever we want. "We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us," the pope writes. "[W]e must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures."
  • Economic growth is only good if it benefits those who make it possible, Francis explains, and activities that fuel climate change fail that test. "The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world," he writes, adding that "our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development."
  • The problem isn't just that we're stuck in our ways, according to the pope. It's confounded by people who either obscure the facts, sow doubt or simply fail to appreciate the gravity of the situation. "Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions," Francis writes. "We require a new and universal solidarity."
  • Despite the draft's sweeping scope, Francis also offers some specific recommendations. He dismisses the idea of carbon credits as a solution, for example, arguing they "can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide."
  • In a nod to the enlightening powers of biophilia, Francis reminds his readers that spending time in nature can help remind us why it's worth preserving. Quoting a letter from Canadian bishops, he writes that "From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine."
  • While encyclicals are typically directed at Catholics, the pope makes clear this one is meant for everyone. "Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet," he writes. "In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home."
This encyclical may be exhaustive, but Pope Francis is just getting warmed up. He'll take his message on the road later this year for several major appearances ahead of the Paris talks. He's scheduled to visit the White House on Sept. 23, followed by the first-ever papal address to a joint session of U.S. Congress. And during the same trip, he'll address the U.N. General Assembly during a conference on sustainable development.

Climate change is a manifestation of humanity's flaws, Francis writes, but he hasn't given up on us yet. He's investing so much energy in this appeal because he's confident our virtue exceeds our vice.

"Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning," he writes. "We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours."

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published on June 16, 2015.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Pope Francis takes climate debate to a new level
The pontiff's sweeping new encyclical is meant not just for Earth's 1.2 billion Catholics, but for 'every person living on this planet.'