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Pope Francis: “Bold Cultural Revolution” Needed to Save Planet from Climate Change & Consumerism

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In his long-awaited encyclical on the environment and climate change, Pope Francis has called for swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” He called for a change of lifestyle in rich countries steeped in a “throwaway” consumer culture, and an end to “obstructionist attitudes” that sometimes put profit before the common good. Pope Francis said protecting the planet is a moral and ethical “imperative” for believers and nonbelievers alike that should supersede political and economic interests. A major theme of the encyclical is the disparity between rich and poor. “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,” he said. We speak to Naomi Klein, author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.” She has been invited to speak at the Vatican, where she will speak at the “People and Planet First: The Imperative to Change Course” conference. And here in New York is Nathan Schneider, columnist at America magazine, a national Catholic weekly magazine published by the Jesuits.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the Vatican, where Pope Francis has called for swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear, quote, “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” Earlier today, the Vatican published the pope’s long-awaited encyclical on the environment and climate change. Pope Francis called for a change of lifestyle in rich countries steeped in a, quote, “throwaway consumer culture” and an end to obstructionist attitudes that sometimes put profit before the common good.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Our house is going to ruin, and that harms everyone, especially the poorest. Mine is therefore an appeal for responsibility, based on the task that God has given to man in creation: “till and keep the garden” in which he was placed. I invite everyone to accept with open hearts this document, which follows the church’s social doctrine.

AMY GOODMAN: Pope Francis said protecting the planet is a moral and ethical imperative, for believers and nonbelievers alike, that should supersede political and economic interests. He also dismissed those who argue that technology will solve all environmental problems and that global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A major theme of the encyclical is the disparity between rich and poor. He said, quote, “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, we destroy the planet.” Environmental groups have welcomed the pope’s action on climate change. Giuseppe Onufrio is the executive director of Greenpeace in Italy.

GIUSEPPE ONUFRIO: [translated] As Greenpeace, we have already expressed our gratitude to his holiness, because we, too, see climate change as a mostly moral and ethical issue. Climate change is already happening, and its effects have already been disastrous on the poorest countries and the poorest people, who don’t have the means to defend themselves from it. They are also part of the human population who have the least responsibility for what is happening, being that they consume less fossil fuels. So we are absolutely grateful for this encyclical, that for us is a source of inspiration.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by two guests. Naomi Klein is the author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. She’s been invited to speak at the Vatican, where she will speak at the “People and Planet First: The Imperative to Change Course” conference. She’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Canada. And here in New York, Nathan Schneider joins us, columnist at America magazine, a national Catholic weekly magazine published by the Jesuits.

Thank you both. Naomi, let’s begin with you. Respond to the pope’s encyclical on climate change and the environment.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yes, good morning, Amy and Nermeen. And before I begin, I would really like to express my deep, deep sadness and outrage at the hate crime in Charleston. This is a grief-struck morning that we’re having this conversation. And it was an attack on a religious institution, which is also worth bearing in mind, as well as an attack on African Americans.

You know, I think that this encyclical, we can’t overstate the importance of it, the impact that it will have. It’s hard to respond to a document that runs close to 200 pages, when it was just released in non-draft form a few hours ago. We’re all still digesting it, Amy. But it is very clear that a door has just been opened, and a gust of wind is blowing through, where it is now possible to say some very powerful truths about the real implications of climate change, really the root causes.

And I think a lot of the discussion about the encyclical in the U.S. media cycle has focused and will continue to focus on the impact on Republicans and on climate deniers, many of whom are Catholic. And it is certainly a challenge to that demographic in the United States, because the pope is coming out so clearly on the side of climate science in saying this is real and this is happening. But I think that it’s too easy to say that this is just a challenge to Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush. Frankly, it is also a challenge to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and to large parts of the green movement, because it is a rebuke of slow action. It very specifically says that climate denial is not just about denying the science, it’s also about denying the urgency of the science. The document is very strong in condemning delays, half-measures, so-called market solutions. It very specifically criticizes carbon markets, the carbon offsetting, as an inadequate measure that will encourage speculation and rampant consumption.

And I think probably the most significant part of it, the big picture, is the foregrounding of the culture of frenetic consumption in the wealthy world and among the wealthy. And this is really significant, because I think large parts of the climate change discussion tries to have it all ways and say, “No, we’ll just have green growth. We’ll just have—we’ll consume green products.” And, you know, this goes a lot deeper than that and says, no, we need to get at the underlying values that are feeding this culture of frenetic consumption that is entirely unsustainable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Naomi Klein, you mentioned the fact that the pope calls repeatedly in the encyclical for radical change. I want to ask you about a specific citation from the leaked document that appeared earlier this week. He said, “In a corrupt culture, we can’t believe that laws will be enough to change behaviors that affect the environment.” Could you talk specifically about that, about the laws that he may be referring to there?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I think, when he’s referring to corruption, I believe he’s referring to the influence of polluting companies, of multinational corporations, which he also goes after in the encyclical. And I think this is one of the most significant things about the document. One might expect of a religious document about climate change to erase difference, right? to say, “Well, we’re all in this together,” and certainly it talks about the Earth as our common home. But it also recognizes explicitly the power dynamics in capitalism, which is to say that there are forces within the system that are actively working against change. And that is probably what he’s referring to when he’s talking about how there may be laws, but the laws aren’t enforced. And, you know, indeed the laws are also inadequate, which is also addressed in the document, and it has some very specific calls for another level of environmental law, which is a part of the document that I haven’t been able to look at, you know, closely enough.

And another thing I have to say is, you know, I am—I have accepted this invitation to speak at a conference which is about digging more deeply into the document, because there’s an understanding that it does take time to digest a document of this length, this multilayered, and it requires that kind of deeper analysis. And I think that this intervention, five months ahead of U.N. climate conference in Paris, is tremendously significant. It’s going to push political leaders to go further. It’s going to be a tool for social movements.

A lot of the language of the climate justice movement has just been adopted by the pope—I mean, even of phrases like “ecological debt.” The pope is talking about the debt that the wealthy world owes to the poor. I mean, this is a framing that comes originally from Ecuador, from the movement against drilling in the Amazon. And, you know, this is a phrase that was never heard in mainstream circles until just now, actually. I mean, I’ve never seen such a mainstream use of that term.

So, it is very important in that way. But, I mean, I have to say, on a personal level, that as thrilled as I am that the Vatican is leading in this way and that this pope is leading in this way and bringing together the fight against poverty with the fight to act on climate change, that doesn’t mean that there’s a complete merger between the climate justice movement and the Vatican here. I mean, obviously there are huge differences that remain over issues like marriage equality, reproductive rights and freedom, to name just a few.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Schneider, you’re a columnist with the Catholic weekly, America. You have been covering Catholic engagement with climate change. Talk about the scope of this—I mean, just for people to understand what this encyclical is, the number of languages it’s been released in, how large it is, and what it means for the Catholic community.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Well, this is really the first Third World encyclical. You know, this is coming from a pope who was shaped in really significant ways by economic crises during the Cold War in Argentina and being in the middle of a battleground between the First and Second World powers. It was drafted by a cardinal from Ghana. So this is coming from the side of the world that we don’t normally hear from. And it’s very much in line with things that popes have been saying for decades, you know, going back to Paul VI, then John Paul II, Benedict XVI. So, a lot of the content is actually not so new for Catholics, but the emphasis and that—the language of climate debt, the language—the recognition that there is a divide here between the rich countries and the poor. And this is a cry from the developing world, from what has been labeled the Third World, for change.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’ll hear the words of Cardinal Peter Turkson himself of Ghana. We urge you to stay with us. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests are Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Captialism vs. the Climate—she is headed to the Vatican to participate in a major conference there. And we’re joined by Nathan Schneider, columnist at America magazine, a national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits. But we’re going to turn now to a clip.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the authors of the encyclical, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, spoke earlier this morning at the Vatican.

CARDINAL PETER TURKSON: [translated] Pope Francis has a positive outlook for the possibility to change tack on the environmental issue. Humanity says Pope Francis still has the capacity to work to build our common home. Human beings are still capable of intervening positively.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana speaking this morning. Nathan Schneider, can you comment on that and the fact, as you pointed out earlier, that this is the first Third World encyclical? Pope Francis is the first pope from the Global South?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: That’s right. That’s right. And I think we see a real change of emphasis here as a result. You know, we see a highlighting of the global inequality that has been exacerbating climate change, and we see an emphasis on the impact on the poor, that this is not an elite kind of luxury-style environmentalism, this is an environmentalism of the poor that puts the concerns and the needs of the poor first.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is global, but we are in the midst of a presidential campaign. Soon, we will never be out of a presidential campaign season. But I want to turn to someone who’s considered one of the more moderates of the Republicans, and that is Jeb Bush, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Speaking at a town hall event in New Hampshire, he commented on the pope’s encyclical.

JEB BUSH: Well, I want to read it, but—I love—first of all, Pope Francis is an extraordinary leader. He speaks with such clarity. He speaks so differently, and he’s drawing people back into the faith, all of which I’m—as a converted Catholic now of 25 years, I think is really cool. I don’t get—I hope I’m not like going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or from my pope. And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues, before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. I’d like both of you to comment. Let’s start with Nathan Schneider and then go to Naomi Klein. He’s a converted Catholic.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Absolutely, and it’s a very strange statement. I mean, Catholics don’t divide our faith between the private and the public. You know, we might disagree, we might struggle with teachings that come from the church, but we still have to engage with them. And to dismiss it in this way is very strange to hear and, I think, very inconsistent. You know, I think this—one of the things that’s so distinctive about this document is it’s measured. You know, it’s a unity document. It’s calling people to a common conversation. You know, it’s not radical, in certain senses, in that it invites us all to find ourselves as part of a common community. And I think it’s an invitation to Jeb Bush, too, and I hope it’s one that the Republican candidates will take seriously in the coming months.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, Jeb Bush saying the pope should stay out of politics?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, it’s interesting that he defines it as this—as a political document. It isn’t merely a political document.

And I think probably it’s—the most threatening part of the document is the way that it engages directly with this argument over what it means to have dominion over the Earth, which is the part of the Bible that the climate change denier movement uses most, right? They talk about—and, you know, I’ve been to these climate change denier conferences hosted by the Heartland Institute, and there’s always a strong religious presence there basically making the argument that God gave us the Earth, and now we can do whatever we want with it, and it is blasphemous to say otherwise. So, the document that—the encyclical is very pointed in rebuking that interpretation, and is saying, actually, the Earth is a sacred gift, and it is ours to take care of and steward, and when we destroy it, we are committing sin. You know, here I’m paraphrasing, obviously; this is not my religion. But it speaks to something—a through line through basically every belief system, every cosmology in history which has seen the Earth as sacred, as something to respect and fear, whether a Mother Earth, a living system or a gift from God. And really, this document is a challenge to that, to this idea that we have the right to act as gods on Earth.

And this is intimately related to climate change, because it really was fossil fuels that allowed humanity, or parts of humanity, to convince themselves that we had this godlike power. And climate change is coming and saying, oh, actually, all this time that you were, you know, making the world flat—to quote Thomas Friedman—and acting as if we had these powers, these godlike powers over geography, and that we were really masters of the Earth, that we could treat the Earth as a machine, we were burning carbon, it was entering the atmosphere. And now comes this response that shows us, actually, that we are guests here, and we can be evicted for bad behavior.

So, I think that—you know, I don’t think Jeb Bush wanted to be having to get into an argument with the pope on his first day on the campaign trail. This is obviously not good for his campaign, obviously not good for a campaign whose main selling point has been that he has an appeal with Latino voters, obviously a very powerful Catholic constituency who I think would probably choose the pope over Jeb Bush. So, you know, this has big implications, Amy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum, a practicing Catholic, was asked about the pope’s actions on climate change during a recent interview conducted by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.

CHRIS WALLACE: You don’t think the pope has a right to talk about this?

RICK SANTORUM: But there are—the pope can talk about whatever he wants to talk about. I’m just saying what should the pope use his moral authority for. And I would make the argument—

CHRIS WALLACE: Well, he would say he’s protecting the Earth.

RICK SANTORUM: I would say that that’s an important thing to do, but I think there are more pressing problems confronting—confronting the Earth than climate change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Naomi Klein, your response to what Rick Santorum said?

NAOMI KLEIN: Look, I mean, it’s just another example of what an awkward situation so many Republicans are in right now. I mean, Marc Morano, a Fox News climate change denier type from the Heartland Institute, you know, is talking about the unholy alliance between the Vatican and the United Nations. You know, you’re not going to out-Catholic the pope. And this is what they’re trying to do.

But, you know, the document is not just about climate change. It is about a broader ecological crisis, and it is also about the crisis of inequality. And I think the most significant aspect of the document, and certainly why I’ve been invited to speak at this conference to go the Vatican, is because they are trying to make the conversation about the failures of our economic system, which is a very live conversation around the world, and the conversation about climate change come together, because they are so often segmented. And this is true, for instance, in Europe right now, where Europe is in the grips of an austerity crisis, and poverty is exploding, and there’s this idea that first you have to solve the economic crisis, and then we can care about climate change. And, you know, this—Rick Santorum is saying, “I think there are more pressing issues than climate change,” right? I think it’s the holistic nature of the analysis that is its power, because what Pope Francis is saying is that the roots of poverty and the roots of climate change are the same. It is this logic of domination and endless greed that has created a broken economy and that is breaking the planet, and that the way out of the crisis, of both crises, is the same. It is another economic model that lives within nature’s limits.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Schneider, we give you the last word.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: The pope is calling here for us to change how we live, how we—what we do with our resources. You know, this is not just moving from one kind of consumerism to another. This is a kind of spiritual renewal and also a material renewal, that—in which we turn ourselves toward an economy that’s sustainable, that’s life-giving, both for humanity and the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Schneider of the Catholic magazine America, and Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, thanks so much for joining us.

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