Pope Francis meets with Sultan al-Jaber, the president-designate of COP28, and his delegation at the Vatican, October 11, 2023 (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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In Laudate Deum, Pope Francis returns to the climate crises he addressed in Laudato si’. That letter was written in the lead-up to the Paris climate accords, when optimism was building that the world’s nations would take meaningful action to address the crisis. Eight years have passed, too little progress has been made, and disasters caused or exacerbated by climate change occur with numbing frequency.

As an “apostolic exhortation,” Laudate Deum does not offer new teaching, but rather applies the teaching of Laudato si’ to current circumstances and calls for renewed action. Although it quotes Laudato si’ extensively, the new letter has a much darker tone. Francis addresses “my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet” and acknowledges that “our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”

This change in tone has been noticed. Contrast the response of the scientific journal Nature to Laudato si’—“Hope from the Pope”—with the response of the codirector of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Johann Rockström, to Laudate Deum: “Science confirms Pope Francis[’s] despair…that we live on a ‘suffering planet’ and ‘may be nearing a breaking point.’”

Francis’s words are strong, but to describe them as “despair” is to misunderstand them. He writes from a tradition that understands hope and despair not as states of affairs or likely outcomes, but as dispositions toward action amid difficulty. In Aquinas’s formulation, hope is a desire for a bonum futurum arduum—“a difficult future good.” Hope is not a sense that things will work out; it is an action-generating desire that charts its path through danger and difficulties. These difficulties are recognized through hard seeing: a clear-eyed and courageous gaze that countenances disturbing realities.

Francis expressed this connection between hard seeing and hope in Laudato si’:

[W]e need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation...evident in large-scale natural disasters. 

 Climate scientists—whose vocation entails hard seeing more than most—are in the midst of a debate about how to speak of the dangers they are witnessing. One side holds fast to climate-communications orthodoxy: damage and threat should always be communicated along with a “hopeful” message that we can still make things right. Others, watching disasters unfold and climate records fall daily, want to speak with more frankness about what is being lost.

Michael Mann, the atmospheric scientist famous for the “hockey stick” chart that graphically conveys the scale of recent global warming, offers a critique of “doomism” that exemplifies climate-communication orthodoxy. In his telling, doomism portrays catastrophe as a “fait accompli, either by overstating the damage to which we are already committed, by dismissing the possibility of mobilizing the action necessary to avert disaster, or by setting the standard so high…that any action seems doomed to failure.”

In The New Climate War, Mann critiques a number of doomist accounts that have garnered enormous attention. Jem Bendell’s 2019 essay “Deep Adaptation” is among the most influential. After it was rejected for publication in a sustainable-management journal, Bendell published it on his institution’s website, where it has been downloaded more than six hundred thousand times. Bendell argued that “societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress” and will face “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction.” Fait accompli indeed.

Francis’s words are strong, but to describe them as “despair” is to misunderstand them.

Mann extends his critique to “soft doomism,” which stops short of fatalistic predictions of collapse, but implies “that catastrophic impacts are now unavoidable” and uses terms like “panic.” As an example of this he cites the work of David Wallace-Wells, who emerged as a major journalist on the climate beat with his 2017 article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which was the most read article in the history of New York Magazine and was later expanded into a bestselling book of the same name. Wallace-Wells sketches a range of climate-change horrors that await us if we do not stop climate-warming emissions: from heat deaths to shifts in ocean chemistry favoring bacteria that will emit clouds of lethal hydrogen-sulfide gas (a contributing cause of previous mass-extinction events). Wallace-Wells’s article was criticized for presenting processes—such as methane emission from melting Arctic permafrost—that will play out over centuries as if they were imminent punctual events.

Channeling widely held principles of climate communication, Mann argues for climate messaging that offers a “carefully calibrated balance of urgency (‘it’s bad’) and agency (‘there’s hope’).” His message is both that climate change poses a profound threat and that we have the technical and policy tools we need to address it if only we summon the political will to do so. He cites a study of emotion in climate messaging that found that worry and hope are the most powerful motivators of engagement and that fear can elicit disengagement and denial.

The excesses of Wallace-Wells’s earlier reporting notwithstanding, serious scientists are struggling to communicate our predicament with an intensity commensurate with the harm we are unleashing. Johann Rockström’s use of the word “despair” arises from his knowledge of the profound damage humans are doing to the planet. He is the lead researcher in the “planetary boundaries” project, which has spent decades trying to quantify human impacts on the various earth systems upon which civilization depends. Its most recent report found that we have already transgressed the “safe zone” in six of nine categories. Three of these, including climate change, have entered into the “high risk zone.”

The 2023 State of the Climate Report,” to which Rockström contributed, describes our moment this way: “In 2023, we witnessed an extraordinary series of climate-related records being broken around the world. The rapid pace of change has surprised scientists and caused concern about the dangers of extreme weather, risky climate feedback loops, and the approach of damaging tipping points sooner than expected.”

One doesn’t have to read scientific journals to know this. The effects of climate change seemed to be everywhere in 2023: a summer of purple air-quality alerts caused by wildfires in Canada; countless videos of town streets turned into raging torrents during extreme storms; rare cyclones in both the Mediterranean and California; August wildfires in Maui and in the stunning old-growth Douglas fir groves of the H. J. Andrews Forest in Oregon, where the seminal research into old growth was conducted (see “A Cathedral Not Made by Hands,” January 2020); an October hurricane that devastated Acapulco after growing from an insignificant tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than twenty-four hours; and the death from heat exhaustion of a twenty-three-year-old woman attending a Taylor Swift concert in Rio de Janeiro on a November day (mid-spring in the Southern hemisphere) when the heat index reached 138 degrees.

Serious scientists are struggling to communicate our predicament with an intensity commensurate with the harm we are unleashing.

Shockingly high temperatures and stunningly low sea-ice measurements—normally of interest only to climate watchers—broke through into mainstream media. 2024 was marked by the first days ever recorded when global average temperatures were more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Global average temperatures for the year were 1.48 degrees above pre-industrial averages. The EU Copernicus Climate Change Service concludes that “it is likely” that the twelve months “ending in January or February 2024 will exceed the 1.5 degree level.” Past climate increases have been bumpy, with hot years followed by relatively cooler ones. But recent data may suggest an increase in the rate of warming. Was last year a local peak on the temperature chart, or does it indicate an acceleration? If the latter, we won’t know until it’s too late.

Laudate Deum speaks precisely to this predicament:

Certain apocalyptic diagnoses may well appear scarcely reasonable or insufficiently grounded. This should not lead us to ignore the real possibility that we are approaching a critical point. Small changes can cause greater ones, unforeseen and perhaps already irreversible, due to factors of inertia. This would end up precipitating a cascade of events having a snowball effect. In such cases, it is always too late, since no intervention will be able to halt a process once begun. 

What to do when simply reporting the year’s weather sounds like a narrative of doom and the comms model says too much negative information shuts people down? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine the model—and to reexamine hope.

Mann’s portrayal of hope is decidedly thin. In the study he cites, hope is conceived of as a feeling that accompanies consideration of an issue. One can promote this feeling with a “carefully calibrated” message offering a plausible scenario of success. Such domesticated hope seems incapable of facing the many crises confronting us now, let alone the terrors that are coming.

Recent social-science research challenges the assumption that alarming messages cause people to disengage. Studies show that exposure to troubling climate headlines can increase concern about the issues; that people experiencing psychological distress about climate change are more likely to act, and more likely to discuss climate change; and that young people with high levels of climate distress engage in more public advocacy and private conservation activities. Negative information, even when it causes distress, apparently does not force people into helplessness and inaction. These insights about the mobilizing power of distress should not be surprising after decades of politics driven by specters of terrorism and border paranoia.

The perceived nuances of emotion and agency in messaging are artificial. Real life is never sorted this way. Theological traditions of hope have something to offer here because they never divided hope from distress. Christian hope is surprised neither by the world’s brokenness nor by the excruciating demands of seeking goodness in it. To take but one aspect of Aquinas’s theology, hope arises precisely amid difficulty and seeks a way toward a possible but uncertain good. Such a hope has a fierceness about it. In the obscure medieval vocabulary, hope is an “irascible” passion—something that moves us toward difficult goods and away from obstinate evils. Its root meaning is anger—fighting for a good. Hope for Aquinas is an action-generating desire born of painful awareness of difficulty.

Laudate Deum displays both the painful awareness and the action-orientation of hope. At the end of a lengthy, frank, and critical review of the history of the UN climate process, Francis assesses the COP28 meeting. It was hosted by a major oil-producing nation, the United Arab Emirates, “a great exporter of fossil fuels.” Despite its embrace of renewable energy, the country nevertheless plans further increases in oil and gas production. The meeting was presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the national oil company, and leaked documents revealed a UAE plan to discuss oil and gas deals with numerous countries attending the conference.

Francis does not present hope as a feeling and he spends no energy painting rosy scenarios. He invokes hope as determination against enormous odds. In the face of the challenges at COP28, “To say that there is nothing to hope for would be suicidal, for it would mean exposing all humanity, especially the poorest, to the worst impacts of climate change.” 

There is a flatness to the politics implied by communication strategies such as Mann’s. Our struggle to respond to climate change is not a global plebiscite of public opinion but a process of negotiation among nations where carbon industries have enormous influence and much to lose. The specificity of Francis’s discussion of hope is noteworthy in this regard. It is focused on policy outcomes: “If there is sincere interest in making COP28 a historic event that honors and ennobles us as human beings, then one can only hope for binding forms of energy transition that meet three conditions: that they be efficient, obligatory and readily monitored.”

Richer accounts of hope can speak more effectively to doomism by offering the possibility of acting in the face of overwhelming loss. Everyday life shows that humans are able to act with courage and love when confronted with adversity or even disaster. Theological accounts of hope have much to offer here. In her essay “Desolation as Dark Night,” Sr. Constance FitzGerald, OCD, finds in John of the Cross a conception of hope that is deeply entangled with loss and renunciation:

Hope comes into play when we are really radically at the end, unable to find any further resources to connect the memories, feelings, images and experiences of life in a meaningful pattern or a promising future. Then hope, forfeiting the struggle to press meaning out of loss, becomes a free, trustful commitment to the impossible, which cannot be built out of what one possesses.

Such hope, intimate with mourning, has the wildness to speak to our moment. Rather than censoring people’s feelings, it can honor the brokenheartedness of those who have eyes to see what we are doing to the Earth, and can thus offer an honest path to chastened action instead of despair. In its harsh honesty, Laudate Deum expresses such a hope.

Vincent Miller is the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton and a Sustainability Scholar at its Hanley Sustainability Institute. He is the editor of The Theological and Ecological Vision of Laudato Si’: Everything is Connected (T&T Clark). He is writing a book about hope in the Anthropocene.

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Published in the February 2024 issue: View Contents
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