Pope Francis: Climate Change Hurts the Poor Most

June 18, 2015

“Hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” – Laudato Si, Pope Francis I

Pope Francis has firmly pronounced that climate change is a threat to the world’s poor in a long-awaited encyclical released on Thursday.  The Pope is the religious leader of more than one billion Catholics, more than half of whom live in the developing world. But he has addressed the encyclical to “every person who lives on this planet,” Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

The encyclical is far-reaching. At its heart it is about climate change and the damage it inflicts on the world’s poor. But the 40,000-word document touches on many other themes including air conditioners, animal testing, bycatch, clean water, coral bleaching, endangered species, environmental education, environmental impact studies, food waste, garbage in the ocean, human trafficking, inter-faith dialogue, inter-generational solidarity, the Internet, landscape connectivity, mining, population, public transportation, UN conventions, urban planning, war, and more.  And it contains lots and lots of theology.

Here are selected passages from the encyclical on the six themes I found most salient (numbers in parentheses indicate the paragraph that the passage is from).

The Pope gets climate science

In 1633 the Vatican placed Galileo under house arrest for eight years for proving the Earth rotates around the sun (it has since apologized).  But these days the Pope has a Pontifical Academy of Science that includes Nobel Laureates to help him get the science right: 

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...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. (23)

Climate change hurts the poor most

We at CGD have been talking for years about how climate change will hurt poor people in developing countries first and worst and how climate change will be awful for the rich and catastrophic for the poor. But we don’t have quite the same moral authority, nor eloquence, as the Pope:

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications…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 ecosystemic 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. (25)
The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. (51)

Damage to the environment is damage to the poor

It’s not just climate; other types of damage to the environment have an outsized impact on poor people as well.  This echoes the science and economics that poor households benefit most from forest ecosystem services and suffer most from their loss, synthesized in a pair of recent CGD working papers by Katrina Brandon and Katrina Mullan.  Here’s the encyclical:

Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. (20)
One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases. (29)
Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest. For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. (48)
I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. (13)

The Pope is keyed in to forests

Forests sometimes feel like the best-kept secret in climate change. Even though halting and reversing tropical deforestation could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24-30 percent, fossil fuels get all the attention and investment. So it’s nice to see that the Pope has caught on to forests:

Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. (24)
The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. (32)
Let us mention, for example, those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins…The ecosystems of tropical forests possess an enormously complex biodiversity which is almost impossible to appreciate fully, yet when these forests are burned down or levelled for purposes of cultivation, within the space of a few years countless species are lost and the areas frequently become arid wastelands. (38)
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. (146)


The Pope knows what needs to be done to avoid global warming, and it sounds a lot like decarbonization:

There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. (26)
The protection of the environment is in fact an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it. (141)
A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries. (164)
We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. (156)

As impressive as the encyclical is, it’s worth noting that when it comes to the finer points of climate economics, the Pope is not, well, infallible:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. (171)

Cap-and-trade systems are already helping Europe, New England, California, and other regions reduce emissions. And for good reason, since a price on carbon represents the most efficient way to combat climate change.  Without a price on carbon some companies will inevitably do too little to reduce emissions while others will do so too expensively.

Differentiated responsibilities

Even though climate change affects everyone, the Pope is clear that rich consuming countries have the greatest responsibility, and that climate change shouldn’t be fought on the backs of the poor:

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. We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities. (52)
The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused. (170)
For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively. They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet. (172)
The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions. (175)

Let’s hope that the Pope’s moral teachings give a boost to climate action and cooperation in this year of the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN climate summit in Paris

For a beautiful personal reaction to the Pope’s encyclical, see this blog by my colleague Frances Seymour.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.