The Defenders

Pope Francis

“The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on December 17, 1936. He was the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina. In high school, he studied to become a chemical technician. After graduating, he worked for a while at a food processing plant, but he felt called to join the church. At the age of 22, he began studying to become a Jesuit priest. He also studied academics, first studying humanities in Chile and later earning the equivalent of a master’s degree in philosophy back in Argentina. He taught high school literature and psychology while pursuing his degree in theology.

Francis was ordained a priest in 1969 and took his final vows in the Jesuit order in 1973. He served as head of the Jesuit province of Argentina from 1973 to 1979Germany where he served as a seminary teacher and rector (a church leader in charge of a parish) while pursuing graduate studies in theology. In 1992, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, and in 1998 he was named archbishop of Buenos Aires, a post he held until he became pope. He was ordained a cardinal in 2001.

During the late 1990s, Argentina experienced a financial crisis. During this time, Francis became an outspoken advocate for the poor and promoted the church’s position on social matters in meetings with government officials. He also gained a reputation for compassion and humility by choosing to live in a small apartment downtown rather than in the archbishop’s residence and traveling by public transportation or on foot rather than by limousine.

In February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI resigned. A group of cardinals convened the following month to elect the new pope. Pope Francis was elected in March 2013. He chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of humble service to the poor, and St. Francis Xavier, a founding member of the Jesuit order. During his papacy, Francis has championed the poor and oppressed and promoted a broad ministry that aims to include non-Catholics and even non-Christians. He has denounced economic inequality and called on the church to embrace global diversity.

In 2015, Pope Francis released a papal encyclical, Laudato Si’. A papal encyclical is one of the highest forms of communication by the pope and usually deals with some aspect of Catholic teaching. Laudato Si’ focused on ecology and stated that climate change is a moral issue. In the letter, Francis urged the clergy to accept that climate change is real and largely “a result of human activity.” He described climate change as an urgent issue, stating, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.” Francis also framed climate change as a social justice issue, stating, “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Francis also used the encyclical to criticize world leaders for their failure to take action, writing “Those who will have to suffer the consequences. . . will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.” He went on to state, “True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good.” In particular, he called on more industrialized nations to take responsibility for their actions: “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”

Francis also focused the encyclical on the roles that individuals and businesses play in causing and addressing climate change. He urged people to curb their consumption, writing “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.” He urged businesses to focus not just on maximizing profits but on the real costs associated with doing so, including ecological ones. Despite his dire warnings, Francis made clear that the situation is not hopeless. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home … Truly, much can be done!”

Most recently, in January 2020, in an annual speech to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps that is often called his “State of the World” address, Pope Francis called the world’s governments’ response to the disastrous effects of climate change “very weak” and “a source of grave concern.” He went on to say that the lack of progress since the last round of global climate talks, which were held in Madrid in December 2019, "raises serious concern about the will of the international community to confront global warming with wisdom and effectiveness." While disappointed by governments’ responses, Francis had praise for young activists. “The protection of the home given to us by the Creator cannot be neglected. Young people are telling us that this cannot be the case, for at every level we are being urgently challenged to protect our common home."


In 2015, 196 countries negotiated an agreement on taking action to combat climate change that came to be known as the Paris Agreement. Signatories to the agreement committed to taking steps to limit the increase in global average temperature this century to 1.5° C (2.7 degrees F). Yet, in spite of the agreement, global emissions from fossil fuels increased 1.5% in 2017, 2.1 percent in 2018, and 0.6 percent in 2019. The last five years have been the hottest on record.

Analysis suggests that if governments take immediate action now, we can reduce carbon emissions within 12 years and hold global temperature increases below the 1.5° C threshold. To find out whether governments around the world are ready to take action, National Geographic teamed up with the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) to create a “climate change report card.” They found that some countries are meeting their goals to cap climate emissions while others are falling far short.

The report card ranks Morocco, the Gambia, India, Costa Rica, and the European Union at the top of the class. According to CAT, Morocco and the Gambia are the only two countries that have plans to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to a level consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. India has emerged as a global leader in renewable energy and is investing more in them than in fossil fuels. Costa Rica is on track to have its electricity production be 100 by 2021, if not before. And the European Union is making steady progress toward a 40reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

At the bottom of the class are the Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States Russia is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is on track to see its greenhouse gas emissions increase by 15% to 22% by 2030. According to CAT, Saudi Arabia is likely to see its greenhouse gas emissions increase by as much as 80 percent over the 2015 levels by 2030. Turkey is attempting to achieve energy self-sufficiency by building 80 new coal-fired power plants, which will significantly increase its greenhouse gas emissions. According to CAT, “Ukraine’s current climate target would see its emissions grow substantially from present levels.” And finally, the Trump Administration has taken a series of actions that will likely significantly increase the United States’s greenhouse gas emissions. These include rolling back the Clean Power Plan and relaxing vehicle efficiency standards to such an extent that even vehicle manufacturers have objected.


  • Laudito Si': Read the full text of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change.
  • Climate Action Tracker: Find out how well 32 countries covering 80% of global emissions are doing at meeting the globally agreed upon aim of "holding warming well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C." 
  • Seven Solutions to the Climate Crisis: Learn about seven technological solutions businesses and government can support to minimize the fallout from climate change.
  • 7 Instant Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Read about seven steps individuals can take to curb their consumption and minimize their impacts on climate change.


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