By Roland Wall, Senior Director, Environmental Initiatives
When representing the Academy, I seldom speak from a personal perspective, but as someone who has worked for 16 years at the nexus of science, policy, and communication, I’m glad to have this opportunity to comment on the Encyclical released in late June by Pope Francis.
In the past, I have shared the frustration of many in the science community as we try to build awareness and a sense of urgency around long-term environmental challenges. For those of us in fields governed by evidence and observation, these crises are well understood and of grave importance.
It was refreshing, then, to see a global leader like Pope Francis summarize the true global nature of environmental threats in the strongest and clearest possible terms. I think we all must applaud the simple, powerful, and very human appeal of the encyclical’s message about climate change. A single statement, “(N)ever have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” resonates in ways that complex science and policy arguments cannot.
The Encyclical is a call to action, a manifesto that outlines our unique point in history and the changes that need to be made to ensure a future for both nature and human society. Pope Francis writes, “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.”
In reading the Encyclical, I’m struck by several key points. The document shows profound respect for the principles of natural sciences and for the scientific method. It is also a comprehensive examination of how we interact with the environment and what the real results of human actions have been. Beyond heralding the science of climate change, the document looks at a range of critical natural processes and the ways they are threatened by human actions.
Pope Francis demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the nuances of environmental solutions. He covers everything from the need for energy storage technology to the conservation of “non-charismatic” species, such as fungi, algae, and worms, to the importance of ecosystem services. For the Academy, which has been studying biodiversity for more than 200 years and the ecology of water for over 70, it is especially exciting to see these topics highlighted as crucial elements of a healthy planet. In looking at the problem of extinction, the Encyclical clearly identifies the connection between biodiversity and the ecosystem: “Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable.”
The mounting crisis of managing the world’s water gets a section of its own. “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” The connection between drinking water and natural systems has been of intense interest to Academy scientists for many decades. It is energizing to see it articulated at this level.
In the weeks and months to come, I expect this document will launch vigorous discussion and debate. But scientists must recognize that the earth has a new champion. This powerful statement could help to energize and focus a vision for our planet.
Join the Academy of Natural Sciences on Monday, September 21, as we mark Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Philadelphia with a special forum, Climate Change: A New Dialogue. In his recent Encyclical, Pope Francis called for a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet … a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, we believe in the power of science to make a difference in the real world. On September 21, the Academy, with its world-renowned legacy of biodiversity and environmental science, will respond to Pope Francis’ call by convening environmental advocates, scientists, and community members for a critical conversation about climate change and our future. This event is free and open to the public.