Whodunit? That's the question roiling the Western presses right now, as the release of Pope Francis' hotly anticipated encyclical on climate change set for release this week had the wind knocked out of it when the draft was apparently leaked to a Rome newspaper, which then published it.
It's not just that the encyclical on the environment is controversial enough; many conservative elements in the Church and society at large are critical both of the science behind global warming and the idea that a pope, for the first time in history, would weigh in on a subject that until now has been the province mostly of scientists and politicians. The leak, however, seems to confirm and bring such tensions into high relief; whoever squirreled away a copy of the 191-page document, called "Laudato Si" (Praised Be) and sent it to L'Espresso magazine, a publication known for its fierce opposition to Francis and the reforms he has instituted at the Vatican, appeared bent on preempting, perhaps even embarrassing, the Pope and subverting the impact his landmark encyclical will have on the contentious worldwide debate over climate change.
Based on the draft published, it's a document, indeed, that has the potential to tip the balance in favour of greater recognition of the reality of manmade environmental deterioration, instead of the view offered by climate-change deniers that the melting of the polar ice caps, the steep rise in the planet's temperature and sea levels and the resulting extreme weather disruptions are all natural phenomena unrelated to or uninfluenced by human activities. In "Laudato Si," Francis comes out firmly on the side of mainstream international scientific consensus by saying that global warming is "mostly" the result of human action. He warns that unless societies scale back on harmful activities such as the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels and the rampant emission of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the planet's atmosphere, the world risks a catastrophe, with the Earth "transforming itself into an immense rubbish dump."
Climate-change skeptics deem this view dangerous and misleading. Just last month, when the Pope met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at a one-day Vatican conference called "The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity"-which had gathered some 60 Catholic economists, scientists and thinkers who had then released a statement saying that "human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive control is a moral imperative for all of humanity"-a clutch of vocal deniers said Francis had no business inserting himself into such a discussion. "The Pope has great moral authority but he's not an authority on climate science," said the Heartland Institute.
It pays, though, to examine the root of the virulent opposition such groups pose against the issue of climate change. The Heartland Institute, for instance, is, according to The Telegraph UK, "a conservative American pressure group partly funded by billionaire industrialists." The oil and gas industries are primarily responsible for the large amounts of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere, and as such would be directly impacted by a turnaround to "greener," more sustainable trade practices. In the face of solidifying scientific data across the globe on the calamitous effects of climate change, these industries would rather stick their heads in the sand-Heartland's bald-faced claim: "Many scientists have concluded that human activity is a minor player. The Earth has been warming since the end of the last Ice Age"-than change their harmful practices and risk their bottom lines.
Against such industrial-strength greed and callousness, and true to the radical trajectory of his papacy thus far, Francis has taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, by wading directly into the fray and coming down squarely on the side of the environmental champions. In "Laudato Si," he is deploying the enormous moral force of his person and office to tell the world that dithering and inaction in the face of a rapidly deteriorating planet will only be to the detriment of everyone, especially the poor who are already deprived of the most basic provisions and protections to live decent lives.
Will this encyclical change the game? It remains to be seen, and those against it will certainly not give up without a fight. But they have to reckon with Pope Francis, who continues to surprise-and reinvent his office-with bold, progressive initiatives.