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The Pope Makes Plea to Save the Amazon — Will the World Listen?

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The Pope Makes Plea to Save the Amazon — Will the World Listen?
Pope Francis celebrates an opening Mass for the Amazon synod, in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Massimo Valicchia / NurPhoto / Getty Images

by Justin Catanoso

Pope Francis, in an effort to reignite his influence as a global environmental leader, released an impassioned document Feb. 12 entitled Dear Amazon — a response to the historic Vatican meeting last autumn regarding the fate of the Amazon biome and its indigenous people.


In a 94-page "exhortation," Francis argued for the ecological importance of Amazonia — the world's largest and most biodiverse tropical rainforest — describing the ecosystem services the biome provides, the region's greatly beneficial weather, and the climate change mitigation the forest offers via carbon storage. The pope stressed that those best suited to protect the Amazon are the indigenous people who have lived there since time immemorial.

The document comes as the Amazon faces "deforestation at breakneck rates," driven by illegal logging, mining, ranching and agribusiness in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil, a nation that has also seen a sharp spike in killings of indigenous activists.

Dear Amazon isn't only addressed to Catholics, but "to all persons of good will." It sums up the findings of a three-week Vatican synod, a formal meeting held last October that brought together for the first-time hundreds of Catholic bishops, indigenous leaders and environmental activists from nine South American countries with territory in the Amazon. Francis' post-synod response is organized into four "dreams:" societal, cultural, ecclesial and ecological.

His plea in defense of the rainforest is at once scientific, humanistic, political, and spiritual: "If the care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable, this becomes especially important in places where the forest is not a resource to be exploited; it is a being, or various beings, with which we have to relate," Francis writes in the ecological section. "When indigenous peoples remain on their land, they themselves care for it best, provided they do not let themselves be taken in by the siren song and self-serving proposals of power groups."

Francis joins with Amazon scientists and activists in their alarm. Rapidly escalating deforestation in the biome is already threatening the key goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement — keeping the world from overshooting a 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) rise since the preindustrial era. The Paris accord specifically cites the carbon-sink-and-sequestration capacity, and vital importance, of large, intact forests as a reliable way to slow global warming.

Top scientists are already warning that climate change and deforestation could be causing the Amazon to cross a critical rainforest-to-savanna tipping point, at which time the biome could begin releasing vast sums of stored carbon, pushing the world toward climate catastrophe.

That warning comes as Brazil, which includes much of the Amazon basin, has been beset by wildfires and aggressive land grabbing. The Brazilian Amazon lost 3,475 square miles of forest — seven times the size of New York City — in 2019, a staggering 85 percent increase over 2018.

But as reported in the Jesuit magazine America, "Pope Francis' words will certainly not please Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro who, on the eve of the exhortation's publication, sent a proposed law to the Brazilian Congress that would permit mining activities within the reserves of indigenous peoples, including the Amazon region, without the people's consent."

Defending Nature — Again

Dear Amazon stands as an emphatic complement to Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, a papal encyclical released in June 2015 with the express purpose of spurring a positive outcome to the United Nations negotiations that resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement that December. An encyclical is a Catholic teaching document of the highest order, possessing "moral authority."

Laudato Si established Francis on the world stage as an ecumenical leader and advocate for environmental protection. He bluntly blamed human activity for global warming and castigated rampant consumerism and unbridled capitalism as hastening the destruction of the earth.

Myriad faith communities around the globe were inspired to organize and act on the pope's urgings. However, the controversial manifesto met with mixed reviews in Latin America where some see conservation as a hindrance to economic growth and the relief of the poor in developing nations. Vatican officials have since touted climate action as a "moral imperative."

The message of Dear Amazon seems even more urgent than the 2015 encyclical, coming in response to the rapidly worsening Amazon emergency: "We are water, air, earth and life of the environment created by God," Francis writes. "For this reason, we demand an end to the mistreatment and destruction of mother Earth. The land has blood, and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth."

Laudauto Si was released when the progressive pope was at the height of global popularity, and it was heralded and cited for months by international media. But the urgent call of Dear Amazon has so far been largely ignored. Mainstream media accounts in the past week instead focused almost exclusively on Francis' decision to not allow the marriage of priests serving in the Amazon as a way of boosting their dramatically diminished numbers.

The New York Times — which like other accounts stressed the Catholic church's progressive and conservative political divide — went so far as to report that "his closest advisers have acknowledged that the pope's impact has waned on the global stage, especially on core issues like immigration and the environment."

People of Faith Respond

Francis won't likely be standing down without a fight. He calls on Latin American governments to enforce their environmental protection laws, return land rights to indigenous peoples, and recognize that Amazonian rainforests are more than an economic resource to be monetized for "extraction, energy, timber and other industries that destroy and pollute."

"The equilibrium of our planet depends on the health of the Amazon region," Francis writes. "Together with the biome of the Congo and Borneo, it contains a dazzling diversity of woodlands on which rain cycles, climate balance and a great variety of living beings also depend."

Faith leaders contacted by Mongabay looked past Vatican politics and cheered the pope's message in Dear Amazon, saying that it is invigorating their conservation work and strategies.

"Protecting rainforests is fundamentally an ethical issue, where care for creation and the realization of social justice for indigenous peoples and forest communities are part of one moral fabric," said Joe Corcoran, the UN project manager for the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), an NGO which lobbies for governmental climate action in six rainforest countries.

"Through IRI, we are seeing that not only is the leadership of Pope Francis rallying Catholics to act, but [it is] also inspiring religious leaders from other faiths to protect rainforests around the world," Corcoran said.

Seeing the Amazon gravely at risk, the Vatican has called on governments and the people of the world to protect the world's largest remaining rainforest. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Laura Vargas leads IRI's initiatives in Peru: "I believe Dear Amazon marks a turning point for the whole life of the church in the Amazon and beyond its borders. If we believe everything is interconnected, we realize that what happens to the largest tropical forest in the world affects the entire planet."

Meanwhile, at London-based Christian Aid, a global environmental activism organization, spokesman Joe Ware said, "The pope remains one of the most popular and loved pope's with significant influence not just over one billion Catholics, but of many others, too."

Ware stressed that 2020 is a crucial year, the year the Paris Agreement goes into force. The agreement remains dangerously incomplete as leaders of the industrialized world continue dragging their feet to establish aggressive carbon emission-reduction policies, even as time runs short to dramatically begin decarbonizing the global economy — the UN itself warned in 2018 that the world's nations have just 12 years to act to avoid climate catastrophe.

"It's vital," Ware said, "that we have the voice of the Catholic Church and people of faith around the world pushing political leaders this year to make the boldest decisions possible."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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