Who Shall Inherit the Earth? Pope Francis Calls for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Tackling Climate Change

By Antonia Chan and Jessica Moore Kaplan 


Pope Francis issued a call on Thursday for politicians, corporations, and individuals to confront climate change and environmental exploitation, setting the stage for science and religion to work together in fighting the human-made global crisis. Laudato Si, a 184-page encyclical announcing the Pope’s stance on the issue,  takes a strongly human rights-based approach to advocating for action against climate change and casts climate change denial as a moral failing.

The Pope issues the pointed call during a time where the world appears increasingly prepared to embrace climate change as a moral issue. The Divest movement, for example, has grown into an international network of campus organizations dedicated to stigmatizing and ending university investment in fossil fuels. Divestment is also occurring among religious organizations such as the United Church of Christ, which in 2013 committed to full divestment from fossil fuels.  The People’s Climate March in September 2014 saw more than 300,000 demonstrators thronging New York City streets to protest international inaction on climate change, while a few blocks away, 120 world leaders convened at the UN to discuss ways to combat carbon pollution.

While the climate change crisis is a global one, the Pope’s encyclical notes that it has particular ramifications for developing countries and will have a disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest people. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim called the document a “stark reminder to all of us on the intrinsic link between climate change and poverty,” echoing the words of Mary Robinson in her foreword to HHR’s June 2014 issue on Climate Justice and the Right to Health.

The encyclical overtly places blame for environmental change on developed countries, noting that they have incurred a great debt to developing countries through their excess consumption of resources. “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development,” the Pope notes.

The document makes specific reference to basic human rights such as access to food, clean water, and medical treatment, noting, “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.” Regarding access to water, the Pope notes that water supplies must not become privatized, writing, “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.”

HHR’s issue on Climate Justice and the Right to Health, as well as other articles, are in lockstep with key points in the Pope’s encyclical:

  • The impact of climate change on basic human rights such as access to food, clean water, and medical treatment disproportionately threatens the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized.
  • Procrastinating on the issue of climate change will result in widespread human rights violations and exacerbate existing ones.
  • Developed nations must move away from non-renewable energy and focus on promoting sustainable development both domestically and in less-developed nations.
  • Technology is not a silver bullet for environmental degradation; approaches to reversing climate change must address and take responsibility for the issue of global poverty and its impact on future generations as well. The encyclical rejects the idea that economics and market growth will address global hunger and poverty.
  • “Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations” must be a core concern for humanity; children in the 21st Century are already disproportionately impacted by climate change.


More HHR papers on the impact of climate change on health and human rights:

Editorial: The Great Procrastination (Paul Farmer, Jay Lemery, Carmel Williams)

 Foreword (Mary Robinson)

Prioritizing Health: A Human Rights Analysis of Disaster, Vulnerability, and Urbanization in New Orleans and Port-au-Prince

Rising Oceans, Climate Change, Food Aid, and Human Rights in the Marshall Islands

Social Justice, Climate Change, and Dengue

Climate Change, Children’s Rights, and the Pursuit of Intergenerational Climate Justice

Read the rest of our Climate Justice issue here

Read the full encyclical from Pope Francis here