When the pope took the podium Friday at the opening of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, most people expected that he would talk about the climate. They were not disappointed.
Because people are part of the physical, scientific, environmental world, “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” Pope Francis told the group of national leaders and U.N. ambassadors.
Notably, especially given the audience, the pope specifically referenced the promise of international climate and sustainability actions.
“The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit, which opens today, is an important sign of hope,” he said. “I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements.”
Reaching a strong climate treaty at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December is widely seen as a necessary step towards keeping emissions low enough to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
The pope uses moral and especially social justice arguments for protecting the environment. During the address, he specifically blamed environmental destruction on political and economic forces.
“The natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded… are closely interconnected and made increasingly fragile by dominant political and economic relationships,” the pope said. “That is why their rights must be forcefully affirmed, by working to protect the environment and by putting an end to exclusion.”
He even took a step beyond systemic reasons, blaming the destruction of the environment on materialism and selfishness.
“In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged,” the pope said.
In fact, the pope tied nearly every aspect of society to the environment. He called war, for instance, “the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment.” Through its negative effect on social justice, the pope blamed abuse of the natural environment on nearly all social ills:
Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labour, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.
The pope has made clear that economic and environmental justice are key priorities for him. During his tenure, he has released two formal papal documents — one an exhortation on economic justice and one an encyclical on climate change.
The pope leaves New York for Philadelphia on Saturday. He has also been in Washington, D.C. during the six-day visit to the United States, where he has been met with record crowds.
In his first U.S. speech, at the White House on Tuesday, the pope reiterated the importance of addressing climate change. The pope also mentioned climate change in his address to Congress, but several Republican members of that body have stated that they will not take the pope’s guidance on environmental issues.