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'Policy wonk' Pope Francis issues harsh critique of global warming

Pontiff, who once worked as a chemist, urges 'decisive action, here and now' to combat climate change and its 'grave implications.'

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Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment Thursday, declaring an urgent need for the political and spiritual conversion of global leaders and individuals to dedicate themselves to curbing climate change.

Gregorio Borgia/AP/File

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Pope Francis’ call for global action on climate change encourages actions ranging from the practical – car-pooling and recycling – to the adoption of an international treaty binding richer nations to help poorer nations adapt. 

In the first ever encyclical on the environment, the Roman Catholic leader urges "decisive action, here and now" to confront environmental degradation and global warming. Its 184 pages offer a harsh critique of the “structurally perverse” forces of capitalism, globalization, and modernity that are turning the Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”

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The encyclical's unapologetic language reaffirms the pope’s unwavering stance against environmental destruction and human-derived climate change.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” Francis writes. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."

In addition to lending a “moral dimension” to the debate over climate change – something that is surely to please environmental advocates – the pontiff unmasks himself “as a total policy wonk” in his encyclical, according to The Washington Post. The much-awaited document, which the Vatican officially released Thursday, provides concrete steps for reducing carbon emissions.

The pope, who has a secondary school technical degree in chemistry and worked early on as a chemist, also made an unprecedented papal dive into policy detail – for example, assessing carbon credits as unlikely to reduce “the overall emission of polluting gases.”

For a document timed ahead of several major conferences aimed at forging a broad new global treaty on climate change, Francis also sought to wield his influence to shape a fair deal for the developing world. He called for a binding international treaty that would have rich countries help poorer ones shift and adapt to new practices and technologies, including a move to help them switch from fossil fuels to clean energies such as solar power.

In closely adhering to the “less is more” lifestyle that he has become known for, Francis shuns air conditioners and gated communities. He calls on the faithful to embrace an “ecological conversion” and urges them to use public transit, plant trees, turn off unnecessary lights.

The pope argues for reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and replacing them with sources of renewable energy. Yet he appears skeptical of mitigation schemes like the buying and selling of carbon credits, which he condemns as a “ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

The New York Times reports that Francis’s critique of carbon trading “could be the oddest single passage in the entire encyclical.” As The Times’ Justin Gillis writes:

If designed properly, this type of system, according to environmental economists, can be one of the best ways to get control of emissions. It is true that Europe, which operates the planet’s largest cap-and-trade system, ran into early problems with loose rules and market manipulation, and has struggled to make repairs. But this type of system is operating effectively in California, the Northeastern United States and some other areas, which had the benefit of studying Europe’s mistakes and avoiding them. Environmental economists are likely to give the pope a serious argument about this passage.

The pope’s recommendations come just months ahead of scheduled UN-backed talks over a new international climate accord. In December, the UN’s 196 members will meet in Paris and seek to negotiate the agreement.

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The conference will be the first attempt at a global deal on climate change since the 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen. Its aim is to limit global warming to a maximum of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels.