Religion calls for dialogue with science over the “global commons”.

by Xiaoshi Zhu

In a time when global efforts are required to address climate change, Pope Francis unprecedentedly published an encyclical on climate change, poverty and inequality in 2015. This is the first time a Pope from The Roman Catholic Church has addressed an encyclical to all “people living on planet Earth”. It has extraordinary meaning for the relationship between religion and science. In the article Science and religion in dialogue over the global commons, authors Ottmar Edenhofer, Christian Flachsland and Brigitte Knopf explore the significance of the Pope’s encyclical.

Since enlightenment, there have been obvious conflicts between science and religion. As science developed at an amazing pace, religion failed to establish authority from one field to another. However, in the encyclical, The Pope seems willing to stop the conflict and calls for cooperation between science and religion to tackle climate change that all mankind is facing.

There are many scientific findings incorporated into The Pope’s encyclical. It explicitly or implicitly cites IPCC group reports and some other scientific analyses such as “The Merchants of Doubt” by Eric Conway and Naomi Oreskes. The encyclical agrees with scientific findings of increasing water scarcity, air pollution, loss of biodiversity, and so on. Additionally, it is particularly concerned with the poor, suggesting that the world address climate change and poverty at the same time, instead of prioritizing one over the other. The encyclical also recognizes that emissions must be limited so that the poor can be protected from consequences of climate change. It criticizes the overconsumption of the global atmospheric sink, especially by the rich, and suggests that the world establish an effective governing system that is “a common good, by all and for all”.

The encyclical corresponds with the approach of the IPCC Working Group III in mainly two ways. First, in response to some countries’ reluctance to take responsibility for coping with climate change, the encyclical strongly suggests that responsibilities should be fairly shared by every country, “especially by richer societies that are capable of doing so”, which coincides with the idea presented in the IPCC WGIII Fifth Assessment Report. Second, the encyclical emphasizes the importance of polycentric approaches to climate governance, an idea emphasized in the Working Group III report.

Some ideas presented in the encyclical are challenged. For example, the suggestion of using economic de-growth to mitigate climate change is opposed by economists and some economists also object to The Pope’s concern about “the effectiveness of emission trading as a policy instrument”. However, it cannot be denied that the essential message conveyed by the encyclical is meaningful; it tells us that the situation we are in is not hopeless and unchangeable. Rather, it calls for “all people living on this planet” to communicate, act and make progress together, “achieving the common good for all”.

Ottmar Edenhofer, Christian Flachsland and Brigitte Knopf, Science and religion in dialogue over the global commons, Nature Climate Change 5.


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