Pope Francis in his encyclical on caring for our common home calls for all of humanity to care about climate, care about creation, and care about the poor. Climate change and environmental degradation cannot be solved without solving the problems of poverty and inequality. The Pope intricately weaves moral and spiritual teachings with science, economics, and politics, addressing environmental values as well as human dignity and human rights.
The Pope identifies interconnected themes in the encyclical:
“As examples, I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle. These questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again.” ¶ 16.
The Pope is already being attacked because he critiques unbridled capitalism, a culture of throw away consumerism, and a blind faith in technology and invisible market forces. The critics are wrong. The Pope does not condemn the strategy of buying and selling carbon credits, for example. He points out that market based strategies alone will not solve the problems of environmental degradation, poverty, and inequality. Thus:
“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” ¶ 131.
48. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. “[T]he gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” . . .
49. It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an after-thought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. . . . There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world . . . where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: . . . . “Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.”
52. . . . The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development. The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes and to cover their costs. . . . As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to “the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests.” We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. . . .
53. The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable, otherwise the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.
54. . . . Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.
23. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.
24. . . . If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
25. Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and eco-systemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. . . . There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
People’s March for Climate Justice NYC 2014
Climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately impact the poor and disadvantaged, and cannot be solved without addressing poverty and inequality. The Pope intricately weaves moral and spiritual teachings with science, economics, and politics, addressing environmental values as well as human dignity and human rights.
“A true ecological approach,” writes the Pope, “always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” ¶ 49 (original emphasis).
Who are the poor and disadvantaged in the U.S. and in California?
Poverty, Race, and Ethnicity
People of color disproportionately suffer from poverty and income inequality. The official poverty level in the US from 2007 to 2011 is about 25% for African Americans, 26% for Native Americans, and 22% for Hispanics, compared to 11% for non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
According to the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, 22.0% of Californians lived in poverty in 2011, using the California Poverty Measure. There is wide variation in poverty rates across California, with especially high rates in counties with high housing costs, such as Los Angeles County (26.9%).
Wealth Inequality, Race, and Ethnicity
Pope Francis writes about economic inequality:
“[W]e should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.” ¶ 90.
There are wealth inequalities based on race, color, and national origin.
According to Prof. Thomas Piketty, “The United States to this day is a country of extremely brutal inequality, especially in relation to race, whose effects are still quite visible. [B]lacks were deprived of civil rights until the 1960s and subjected to a regime of legal segregation . . . . This no doubt accounts for many aspects of the development – or rather nondevelopment – of the U.S. welfare state.”
The wealth of non-Hispanic white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. The wealth of non-Hispanic white households is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010. The Great Recession, fueled by the crises in the housing and financial markets, was universally hard on the net worth of families in the U.S. Although asset prices have started to recover, not all households have benefited alike, and wealth inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines.
Income inequality has exploded in the U.S. and in California since 1980. There are extreme income inequalities for the top 1% and the 10% in the U.S. Income inequality is even worse in California, as shown in the following chart. A large portion of this increase in inequality is due to an upsurge in the labor incomes earned by senior company executives and successful entrepreneurs.
The share of the top 1% in the U.S. national income rose dramatically from less than 10% in the 1970s to about 17-23% in the 2000s-2010s. The pattern of inequality is generally similar in California, with the top 1% receiving over 25% of the income in 2012. The top percentile included families with income above $394,000 in 2012. The bottom half includes families whose income falls below about $50,000. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately excluded from the top incomes.
Pope Francis writes: “Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.” ¶ 93. We agree.
Everyone should have access to parks and green space, which make us feel at home and bring people together. But parks and green space too often are located only in “safer” areas, not in the segregated neighborhoods of the poor and underprivileged. The people most impacted must be included in shaping the solutions. Residential segregation in California and the U.S. is associated with lack of parks and green space, environmental degradation, and adverse health effects. President Barack Obama and the US National Park Service agree that park access is a social justice issue.
Pope Francis writes:
“Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquility. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking harmony, open spaces or potential for integration, can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation . . . . Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.There is . . . a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city which includes us and brings us together. It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. For this same reason, in both urban and rural settings, it is helpful to set aside some places which can be preserved and protected from constant changes brought by human intervention.Anyone who grew up in the hills, or sat by the spring to drink as a child, or played outdoors in the neighborhood park, feels one is being called to recover one’s true self when one goes back to those places.”
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home, ¶¶ 44-45, 84, 149-51.
President Barack Obama recognized that park access is a social justice issue when he created the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument:
“Too many children in L.A. County, especially children of color, don’t have access to parks where they can run free, breathe fresh air, experience nature and learn about their environment. This is an issue of social justice. Because it’s not enough to have this awesome natural wonder within your sight — you have to be able to access it.My commitment to conservation isn’t about locking away our natural treasures; it’s about working with communities to open up our glorious heritage to everybody — young and old, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American — to make sure everybody can experience these incredible gifts.”
The following map of California illustrates that the same communities that are disproportionately of color and low-income are also the most burdened for pollution and vulnerability to its effects. The same communities also have the least access to green space.
- In the communities that are the most burdened for pollution and vulnerability (the 10 percent worst score under CalEnviroScreen CES), fully 89 percent of the people are of color and only 11 percent are non-Hispanic white people. Statewide, the population average is 58 percent people of color.
- In the communities that are the least burdened for pollution and vulnerability (the 10 percent best CES scores), only 31 percent of the people are of color and fully 69 percent are non-Hispanic white people.
- Sixty-four percent of people of color live in the most-burdened communities for pollution and vulnerability (the 50 percent worst CES scores) — only 31 percent of non-Hispanic white people live in those areas.
- Only 36 percent of people of color live in the least-burdened communities for pollution and vulnerability (the 50 percent best CES scores) and fully 69 percent of non-Hispanic white people live in those areas.
The measures of pollution and vulnerability are from the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool. The City Project and GreenInfo Network provide the analysis on race, ethnicity, and green access, because CES inappropriately excludes these factors.
Click on the map to see a larger image
The National Park Service in a best practice summarizes the values at stake for healthy parks, healthy people, and healthy communities:
- Fun, health, and human development.
- Conservation values, including climate justice.
- Economic vitality, including creating jobs and avoiding displacement.
- Art, culture, and spiritual values.
- Equal justice, democracy, and livability for all. “Ultimately, we can appeal to the values that we strive to achieve as a community and democracy and emphasize the inherent democratic nature of public spaces.”
U.S. National Park Service, Healthy Parks, Healthy People Community Engagement eGuide.
The Pope entreats us to care about climate, care for creation, and care for the poor and underprivileged.
Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand. Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families. This is a major issue for human ecology. In some places, where makeshift shanty towns have sprung up, this will mean developing those neighbourhoods rather than razing or displacing them. When the poor live in unsanitary slums or in dangerous tenements, “in cases where it is necessary to relocate them, in order not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process”. At the same time, creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighbourhoods into a welcoming city: “How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!” ¶ 152 (citations omitted).
In a tremendous victory for equal opportunity, and for the future of our nation, the United States Supreme Court endorsed the right to fair housing to continue to help move our country beyond a legacy of segregation and discrimination and toward opportunity for all.
Much progress remains to be made in our Nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation. In striving to achieve our “historic commitment to creating an integrated society,” we must remain wary of policies that reduce homeowners to nothing more than their race. But since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and against the backdrop of disparate-impact liability in nearly every jurisdiction, many cities have become more diverse. The [Fair Housing Act of 1968] must play an important part in avoiding the Kerner Commission’s grim prophecy that “[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society. (Citations omitted.)
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the five person majority, joined by Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan, in the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project (June 25, 2015).
The New York Times supports fair housing in an Editorial :
Housing discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional to be illegal. That is the point of the Supreme Court’s ruling . . . interpreting the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in accord with clear congressional intent, and preserving a well-established and critical tool in the long-running battle to ensure a more integrated society. . . . [T]he law allows plaintiffs to challenge government or private policies that have a discriminatory effect, without having to show evidence of intentional discrimination. Explicit, legally sanctioned racial segregation in housing may be over, Justice Kennedy wrote, but “its vestiges remain today, intertwined with the country’s economic and social life.” From discriminatory lending practices to zoning laws that favor higher-income home buyers, persistent patterns work to hurt minorities and other vulnerable groups the law was written to protect. And over the long term, the effects of housing segregation can alter future incomes and opportunities.
28. [D]rinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Access to water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival
31. Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.
30. Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. [29. One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. . . .] Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. . . . But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.
29. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by . . . pollution . . . . Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.
Environmental, equity, and health impact assessment demands transparent process and local participation
“In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how?” Thus the purpose of an environmental impact assessment includes equity and health:
An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views. . . .Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety. Economic returns can thus be forecast more realistically, taking into account potential scenarios and the eventual need for further investment to correct possible undesired effects. A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders, who can offer a variety of approaches, solutions and alternatives. The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest. . . . The participation of the latter also entails being fully informed about such projects and their different risks and possibilities; this includes not just preliminary decisions but also various follow-up activities and continued monitoring. Honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political discussions; these should not be limited to the issue of whether or not a particular project is permitted by law.In the face of possible risks to the environment which may affect the common good now and in the future, decisions must be made “based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives”. This is especially the case when a project may lead to a greater use of natural resources, higher levels of emission or discharge, an increase of refuse, or significant changes to the landscape, the habitats of protected species or public spaces. Some projects, if insufficiently studied, can profoundly affect the quality of life of an area due to very different factors such as unforeseen noise pollution, the shrinking of visual horizons, the loss of cultural values, or the effects of nuclear energy use. The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information.
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home, ¶¶ 182-85 (citations omitted).
The assessment the Pope describes is consistent with a compliance and equity assessment under civil rights laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the President’s Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health. Health impact assessments are consistent with both the Pope’s and the civil rights assessments.
A civil rights and equity assessment as part of the planning process includes the following steps.
1. Describe what you plan to do.
2. Analyze the benefits and burdens on all communities, including people of color and low income people. Who benefits, and who gets left behind? Analyze the values at stake. The analysis can include numerical disparities, statistical studies, and anecdotal evidence; impacts based on race, color or national origin; inequalities based on income and wealth; and the use of GIS mapping and census data. Follow the money.
3. Analyze the alternatives. Are there less discriminatory alternatives to accomplish similar goals?
4. Include people of color and low income people in the decision making process.
5. Develop a compliance and implementation plan to alleviate any inequities, and to avoid unjustified discriminatory impacts and intentional discrimination.
The compliance assessment is based on the Federal Transit Authority’s guidance documents under Title VI and 12898. Title VI guarantees equal access to publicly funded resources, and prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin by recipients of federal funding. Executive Order 12898 requires each federal agency to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.
See The City Project’s Policy Report Using Civil Rights Tools to Address Health Disparities by Michael Rodriguez, MD, MPH; Marc Brenman; Marianne Engelman Lado, JD; and Robert García, JD (2014).
Pope Francis courtesy CathNewsUSA
Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems. 145.
In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture. 146.
From the top: People’s Climate March NYC culturalsurvival.org; Cochabamba World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth; Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú; Spirit Circle c Ricardo Duffy
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home (official English version) @Pontifex’s #Encyclical
Carta Encíclica Laudato Si’ del Santo Padre Francisco sobre el Cuidado de la Casa Común (en Español) #encíclica @Pontifex_es
Climate is a civil rights and moral issue as well as a health, economic, and environmental issue.
El cambio climático es un asunto de derechos civiles y moral, así como de salud, economía y medio ambiente