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Why is the Pope’s Encyclical so important?

By Jamie Clarke on June 17, 2015

Traditionally the ‘environmental movement’ hasn’t spoken positively about religion on the whole, often actively distancing itself from faith organisations, particularly conservative ones like the Catholic Church. Yet for months the climate change sector has been buzzing about today’s release of the Pope’s encyclical  (a letter on a matter of faith written to his bishops) – and for good reason. The ‘Pope of the poor’ is making the case for an ethical and economic revolution to tackle climate change, and his role as moral messenger is crucial.

But how has this come about? How has traditional authority embraced ‘leftie’ climate change? Has the climate change movement been co-opted by a PR-savvy Pope looking to widen his 1.2 billion flock, or has the Vatican been infiltrated by green anarcho-syndicalists?

Maybe the reality is far less sinister – it could be that old battle lines are disappearing as there is a dawning realisation that the climate is above politics and tribal loyalty. Traditional climate change campaigners are declaring that to ‘Change Everything we Need Everyone’, whilst a growing minority of the traditional opposition are throwing off their chains of scepticism.

As we’ve documented, human beings are woefully under-prepared to deal with climate change psychologically but this difficulty has been compounded by the way most people have been engaged on the issue. For too long climate change has been discussed as an issue far away in distance and time, a story told with cold science alone, using images of polar bears and appearing to be trumpeted only by well-heeled lefties. These stories and this form of engagement doesn’t work for most people, so it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a political polarisation around the issue. Science is brought to life by human stories about what climate change means for society, told by trusted messengers.

For a long time COIN has been leading the call to enable different communities to be able to connect to climate through their own stories and storytellers, allowing people to relate to the issue and create their own narratives in their own words, not ours. In doing so we may be able to create a common purpose that can unite our humanity, not divide us, in finding a solution to the biggest challenge we collectively face. Listen to us on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme discussing the power of Pope Francis as a new story teller.

The encyclical provides just such an opportunity, telling a new story, a moral story, a faith-based story, by a new and powerful story-teller, one that resonates to millions of – but by no means all – Catholics. Although there has been the predictable backlash from some Catholics, the Pope has certainly helped shatter the climate silence for many. Catholics are exceptionally varied in their politics and ethnicity. And the research tells us that these differences are fundamental to how people think about climate change. In the US for example, there are very large differences in attitudes to climate change between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. The Pope’s intervention is important because it enables a conversation that crosses these boundaries. Beyond the encyclical itself, what is important are the thousands of sermons that it will spur, and then the millions of conversations among Catholics it will create – hopefully starting intense debate and discussion.

But a word of warning to climate change advocates celebrating their new messenger and his ability to reach a new audience: they need to be wary of repeating the same mistakes that have lead to political polarization on the issue. The power of a new messenger to reach audiences is based on trust and respect, and this is a delicate balance. There will be far less trust if the new storyteller is seen as being co-opted by outsiders or using outside stories. Consider how a Catholic unconvinced by climate change might relate to the messages in this high budget video, versus this low budget version of today’s announcement (ignoring the production value).

Whilst the Hollywood-style trailer probably works brilliantly for many of those converted to climate change, for Catholics unconvinced by climate change the first video with its violent undertones and traditional environmental message may not ring true. On the other hand, the second video, with its grounding in the Catholic community’s values and language, could be far more engaging in terms of messaging – but it’s plain to see where the production money is going.

Climate change advocates might need to think carefully about unburdening themselves from their traditional narratives before embracing new cheerleaders. When reaching beyond our own communities, we must focus on how to relate to others through carefully considered conversations.

COIN specialises in working with new audiences to help them create new messages about climate change that resonate with their values, sense of identity and worldview, as well as help identify new messengers to carry these messages forward – and we are already working with faith groups. We were commissioned earlier this year by the international multi-faith campaign Our Voices, a campaign of GreenFaith and the Conservation Foundation, to develop and test language around climate change that can engage people of the world’s five main faith groups (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism) on climate change and mobilise them to action. Whilst the findings are yet to be publicly released, key insight from this work is already allowing people of faith to connect with one another around climate rather than be divided by it.

Today’s encyclical provides an incredibly important opportunity for millions of Catholics to relate to climate change in a way that relates to them. It provides an opportunity to initiate new conversations about climate change and about our core values – the type of conversations which can help build the popular support and political will necessary to solve this moral crisis. But alongside this it opens the door for new stories and storytellers to engage their communities too, and demonstrates the importance of the old guard realising the limitation of traditional climate change narratives.


By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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