Pope Francis Castigates World Elite at U.N., Links Environmental Destruction and 'Social Exclusion'

On Friday, Pope Francis addressed the United Nations at the opening of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit. As expected, he called for action on climate change. But he also reframed the debate, casting the climate issue as being intimately connected with the ongoing and seemingly intractable problem of social exclusion. He said:

Today’s world presents us with many false rights and – at the same time – broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised: for example, the natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded. These sectors are closely interconnected and made increasingly fragile by dominant political and economic relationships. That is why their rights must be forcefully affirmed, by working to protect the environment and by putting an end to exclusion.
The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions.

He castigated those among the world's elite who have sought to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of the environment and their fellow man:

The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste."

His sentiments echoed "Our Common Future," the landmark 1987 document from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) that offered the first modern definition of the concept of sustainable development. Also known as the Brundtland Report in recognition of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's role as Chair of the WCED, the document argued for a global development process that meets "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Central to the process is reducing poverty and disadvantage — socially, economically and politically — as well as not depleting natural resources in order to protect future generations.

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Pope Francis is welcomed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and receives flower bouquets from children of UN staff members at the start of his visit to UN headquarters. (image: Mark Garten/United Nations)

The Pope also connected human rights to environmental rights, personalizing the climate issue by contextualizing our own individual, physical bodies within the global environment:

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology,” is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

Though he described a bleak reality, the Pope remained positive, calling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development "an important sign of hope" and was "confident" that the upcoming Paris climate talks in December " will secure fundamental and effective agreements." However, he was careful to remind the delegates that words are ultimately meaningless. "Solemn commitments…are not enough," he said. "Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion."

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Pope Francis delivers a speech at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. (image: Amanda Voisard/Eskinder Debebe/Rick Bajornas/Mark Garten/United Nations)

In Laudato Si, the Pope's encyclical on the environment that he issued this summer, he wrote, "A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings."

The Pope's acute understanding of the interconnectedness of things — between people and the environment, between the fight against climate change and the fight for social inclusion, between compassion and communion — echoes that of Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk and social activist whom the Pope included, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day, in his "Mount Rushmore of Catholicism" during his speech to Congress on Thursday.

In his final address, during a conference on East-West monastic dialogue, delivered just two hours before his death on December 10, 1968, Merton said, "The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another."

As negotiators prepare for the U.N. climate meeting in Paris in December — which has been described as our last, best hope in the climate change fight — they would do well to heed the words of Pope Francis and Thomas Merton and understand that the goal of a universal, meaningful and equitable climate agreement can only be achieved if compassion is also on the agenda.


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