Will the Pope Mention Glaciers in His Encyclical?

As people around the world await the release of a new encyclical on climate change by Pope Francis, we at GlacierHub are eager to see how glaciers are featured in this document. The great moral weight of the pope could lend considerable support to efforts to address climate change. Will the encyclical also draw on the moral weight of glaciers? Their ability to show the beauty and the life-sustaining power of the natural world, and to show the fragility of that world, could reinforce the encyclical’s arguments.

Several pieces of evidence suggest that the pope may well mention glaciers.

Seat of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Pontifical Academy of Sciences (source: APS)

The  Pontifical Academy of Sciences conducted a major workshop on glacier retreat in 2011. This well-respected institution, which dates back to 1603, is composed of leading scientists from around the world. It has no religious or ethnic criteria for membership.  A number of major glaciologists and climatologists participated in this workshop, including Paul Crutzen, who first proposed the term Anthropocene,  Lonnie Thompson, a leading researcher who studies past climates through the analysis of ice cores and  Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist who has studied the contributions of greenhouse gasses and aerosols to  global  warming.

The findings of this workshop were published in a volume, The Fate of Glaciers in the Anthropocene. It reports that glaciers are shrinking in all major mountain regions of the world, largely due to greenhouse gas emissions and aerosols such as black carbon.  As a result, it states, water resources are becoming more scarce, natural hazards are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the precious paleoclimate record contained within the glaciers is imperiled. It concludes that mitigation and adaptation steps are urgent.

The workshop also produced a declaration, which argues eloquently for the importance of glaciers for human well-being and for the natural world.

We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life. We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.

This workshop and its declaration received considerable attention world-wide. Coverage in the New York Times bore the headline “Green Smoke Is Sighted as Vatican Releases Glacier Report.” Nature discussed the contributions of the workshop to the understanding of black carbon’s role in glacier retreat.

Perito Moreno Glacier (source: wikipedia/creative commons)

A  second Vatican institution has also discussed the importance of glaciers. The Roman Pilgrimage Office, a kind of Vatican tour agency, sponsors travel to Catholic sites around the world. In 2014, they offered a 12-day, 11-night tour of Argentina, the pope’s home country.  The description of the tour opens with a statement:  “spirituality, culture and nature are intertwined on this trip.”  The itinerary includes two days in Patagonia. In this southern region, where glaciers are the major highlight,  pilgrims will see “a unique marvelous landscape, dominated by an incredible silence and a wholly distinctive luminosity.”  They travel close to glaciers on the Argentino Lake and in the Perito Moreno National Park, where they can see as well as other highlights of interest to Catholics: the pope’s  birthplace,  the schools where he studied , and the churches where he served, as well as  the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján, the patron saint of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Pope Francis (source: Flickr/koreanet)

Studied by scientists at a Church-sponsored workshop, admired by pilgrims on a Church-sponsored tour, will glaciers be featured in the pope’s encyclical, to be released tomorrow? One further sign of their possible inclusion is their presence in the  Declaration on Climate Change issued on 8 June by the Antilles Episcopal Conference, which represents English, French and Dutch territories of the Caribbean (except for Haiti). This document states explicitly  “this Declaration is in anticipation of the Papal Encyclical on Ecology.” It focuses on the world as God’s creation, on the destruction that humans have caused, particularly through greenhouse gas emissions, and on the poor as the people who are at once most vulnerable and lead responsible. Unsurprisingly for a statement from a group from the Caribbean, it describes its particular concern for small island states.  “Our brothers and sisters who inhabit these places will be in peril,” it says, “through no fault of their own.” And it is aware of the connections of its region to distant mountains:  “As the glaciers and permafrost melt and new vistas open to the poles, sea levels rise and reclaim land.”

And there is additional evidence in a text published earlier this week by the Italian magazine L’Espresso, purportedly a leaked version of the encyclical. Glaciers are mentioned twice in this text.

But we at GlacierHub prefer to look at earlier statements authorized by Church organizations, and take them as positive signs for the inclusion of glaciers in a document that may well advance the global movement to combat climate change.