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Pope Francis spoke about the novel coronavirus, suggesting that the global pandemic might be one of nature's responses to the man-made climate crisis.
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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.
Defending Nature — Again<p><em>Dear Amazon</em> stands as an emphatic complement to <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2016/02/top-vatican-official-climate-change-action-is-a-moral-imperative/" target="_blank"><em>Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home</em></a>, 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."</p><p><em>Laudato Si</em> 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.</p><p>Myriad faith communities around the globe were inspired to organize and act on the pope's urgings. However, the controversial manifesto met with <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2015/08/popes-environmental-encyclical-arrives-in-peru-to-mixed-reviews/" target="_blank">mixed reviews</a> 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 "<a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2016/02/top-vatican-official-climate-change-action-is-a-moral-imperative/" target="_blank">moral imperative</a>."</p><p>The message of<em> Dear Amazon</em> seems even more urgent than the 2015 encyclical<em>, </em>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."</p><p><em>Laudauto Si </em>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 <em>Dear Amazon</em> 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.</p><p><a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/12/world/europe/pope-married-priests.html?searchResultPosition=1" target="_blank">The New York Times</a> — 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."</p>
People of Faith Respond<p>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."</p><p>"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."</p><p>Faith leaders contacted by Mongabay looked past Vatican politics and cheered the pope's message in <em>Dear Amazon, </em>saying that it is invigorating their conservation work and strategies.</p><p>"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 <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/interfaith-leaders-step-up-to-protect-the-worlds-sacred-rainforests/" target="_blank">Interfaith Rainforest Initiative</a> (IRI), an NGO which lobbies for governmental climate action in six rainforest countries.</p><p>"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.</p>
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<p>Laura Vargas leads IRI's <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/cop25-laura-vargas-inspires-with-power-of-faith-in-defense-of-forests/" target="_blank">initiatives in Peru</a>: "I believe <em>Dear Amazon</em> 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."</p><p>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."</p><p>Ware stressed that 2020 is a crucial year, the year the Paris Agreement <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">goes into force</a>. The agreement remains dangerously <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/cop25-self-serving-g20-spites-youth-humanity-world-at-climate-talks/" target="_blank">incomplete</a> 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 <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/" target="_blank">warned</a> in 2018 that the world's nations have just 12 years to act to avoid climate catastrophe.</p><p>"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."</p>
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Amazon in Crisis<p>After more than a decade of environmental policies that successfully slowed <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/deforestation" target="_blank">deforestation</a> <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/amazon-deforestation-unrecoverable-tipping-point-2639358982.html" rel="noopener noreferrer">in the Amazon</a>, logging and agricultural clearing have begun to increase rapidly again. The fires in the Brazilian rainforest that captured headlines in early September are <a href="https://theconversation.com/in-brazils-rainforests-the-worst-fires-are-likely-still-to-come-122840" target="_blank">symptoms of much broader destruction</a>.</p><p>Up to 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been eliminated — dangerously close to the 20 percent to 40 percent <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/will-deforestation-and-warming-push-the-amazon-to-a-tipping-point?" target="_blank">tipping point that experts say</a> would lead the entire ecosystem to collapse.</p><p>Stories of deforestation can seem insignificant against the vastness of the Amazon, a region two-thirds the size of the lower 48 United States.</p><p>But for the <a href="http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/synod-for-the-amazon/synod-for-the-amazon.html" target="_blank">390 indigenous ethnic groups</a> who inhabit the region, each burned forest grove, polluted stream or flooded dam site may mark the end of a way of life that's survived for thousands of years.</p><p>Deprived of their land, many indigenous Amazonians are forced into an exposed life on the edge of frontier towns, where they are prey to <a href="http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/documents/pan-amazon-synod--the-working-document-for-the-synod-of-bishops.html" target="_blank">sex trafficking, slave labor and violence</a>. In Brazil alone, at least <a href="http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/documents/pan-amazon-synod--the-working-document-for-the-synod-of-bishops.html" target="_blank">1,119 indigenous people have been killed</a> defending their land since 2003.</p><p>The Catholic Church recognizes that it still has to address the "<a href="http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/documents/pan-amazon-synod--the-working-document-for-the-synod-of-bishops.html" target="_blank">open wound</a>" of its own <a href="https://religionnews.com/2019/09/17/synod-for-the-amazon-about-more-than-married-priests/" target="_blank">role in the colonial-era violence that first terrorized the indigenous peoples</a> of the Americas, according to the synod's working document. The church legitimated the colonial confiscation of lands occupied by indigenous peoples and its missionaries often <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-the-pope-has-yet-to-overturn-the-churchs-colonial-legacy-39622" target="_blank">suppressed indigenous cultures and religions</a>.</p><p>For this reason, according to the Vatican, organizers of the synod have sought input through <a href="https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-amazon-synod-by-the-numbers-11205" target="_blank">260 listening events</a> held in the region that reached nearly 87,000 people over the past two years. Indigenous leaders have been invited as observer participants in the meeting itself.</p>
Learning From Indigenous Peoples<p>As a <a href="https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/the-theological-and-ecological-vision-of-laudato-si-9780567673176/" target="_blank">theologian</a> who studies religious responses to the environmental crisis, I find the pope's effort to learn from the indigenous people of the Amazon noteworthy.</p><p>The Vatican sees that the Amazon's traditional residents know something much of humanity has long forgotten: how to live in ecological harmony with the environment.</p><p>"To the aboriginal communities we owe their thousands of years of care and cultivation of the Amazon," the 58-page <a href="http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/documents/pan-amazon-synod--the-working-document-for-the-synod-of-bishops.html" target="_blank">synod working document</a> reads. "In their ancestral wisdom they have nurtured the conviction that all of creation is connected, and this deserves our respect and responsibility."</p><p>Pope Francis has expressed his respect for indigenous peoples before.</p><p>At a meeting of indigenous leaders in <a href="http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2018/january/documents/papa-francesco_20180119_peru-puertomaldonado-popoliamazzonia.html" target="_blank">Peru in January 2018</a> he said, "Your lives cry out against a style of life that is oblivious to its own real cost. You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home."</p>
Global Problems, Local Solutions<p>Environmental destruction isn't the synod's only concern.</p><p>Catholicism — long the dominant religion in Latin America — is rapidly losing members to evangelical Protestantism. Evangelicals are projected to eclipse Catholics in Brazil by <a href="https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-americas/2019/09/03/evangelical-missions-a-major-threat-to-amazon-culture-catholic-leaders-say/" target="_blank">2032</a>.</p><p>One advantage evangelical churches have in Amazonian countries is that they can appoint local indigenous pastors to minister to their communities. Meanwhile, with <a href="https://www.axios.com/pope-francis-catholic-church-debates-celibacy-priests-8fb503a2-4d3b-4e00-aa12-f293f2e49d67.html" target="_blank">less than one priest per 8,000 Catholics</a> in the Amazon, some isolated communities might see a priest only once a year.</p><p>The scarcity of priests in rural Latin America is behind a proposal to the synod to <a href="https://www.axios.com/pope-francis-catholic-church-debates-celibacy-priests-8fb503a2-4d3b-4e00-aa12-f293f2e49d67.html" target="_blank">ordain older married men as priests in isolated Amazonian communities</a>.</p><p>In the the U.S., the <a href="https://theconversation.com/how-views-on-priestly-celibacy-changed-in-christian-history-102158" target="_blank">celibacy question</a> is easily mapped onto a <a href="https://www.ncronline.org/news/environment/editorial-status-quo-wont-save-planet-or-catholic-church" target="_blank">familiar divide</a>. Progressive Catholics argue that clerical celibacy should be optional, while conservative Catholics insist this discipline is fundamental to the faith.</p><p>The issue is far less politicized in the Amazon, where, in the words of one bishop, the Catholic Church remains a "<a href="https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-americas/2019/09/03/evangelical-missions-a-major-threat-to-amazon-culture-catholic-leaders-say/" target="_blank">visiting church</a>" with limited day-to-day presence in indigenous communities.</p><p><a href="https://www.economist.com/erasmus/2019/10/04/a-high-noon-moment-for-pope-francis-over-the-amazon" target="_blank">Some</a> might dismiss this synod as just a meeting. But, in my judgment, it is an attempt to apply Francis' vision of a "listening Church" to the environmental crisis. The Synod of the Amazon marks a significant shift from high-minded papal exhortations about taking climate action to a global religious community that gives voice to those living on the front lines of ecological destruction.</p>
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This was a year of tug-of-war for the environment. With Donald Trump becoming president of the U.S. at a time when wildfires, hurricanes, and floods were devastating the country, it was challenging for scientists, activists and concerned citizens to get their voices heard. But several stood out as global leaders on climate and helped give rise to those who were silenced. Below are 14 of the most notable influencers of 2017 and how they fought for a cleaner, safer environment for all.
Pope Francis issued a strong message to negotiators at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany on Thursday, warning them not to fall into "four perverse attitudes" regarding the future of the planet—"denial, indifference, resignation and trust in inadequate solutions."
Francis, who has long pressed for strong climate action and wrote his 2015 encyclical on the environment, renewed his "urgent call" for renewed dialogue "on how we are building the future of the planet."
By Andrew McMaster
Speaking at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on World Food Day, Pope Francis addressed the need for governments around the world to acknowledge that climate change and migration were leading to increases in world hunger.
Francis received a standing ovation after a stirring speech in which he said all three issues were interrelated and require immediate attention.