The Papal Encyclical Letter on the Environment

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is scheduled for official public release tomorrow, Thursday, June 18. However, a leaked draft has already made its way around the web, and somebody shared it with me.  (I guess many Catholics, including at Santa Clara University, have been awaiting it eagerly.)

If the final version doesn’t change much from the draft, it will be a very expansive perspective on the relationship of humans to the environment and climate change.  Interestingly, chapter 5 discusses international environmental law and governance extensively.  The chapter touches on the 1992 Rio Declaration (para. 167) , the 2012 Rio+20 Conference (para. 169) and three international environmental agreements (para. 168)– the 1989 Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes, 1972 CITES, and the 1985 Vienna Convention on the Ozone Layer.  It also discusses at some length two key environmental governance principles and their importance to government transparency and engagement of civil society: the duty to conduct environmental impact assessments and the precautionary principle.

Most remarkable,  however, is the encyclical’s critique of the effectiveness of international environmental law and treaties generally, especially failings of enforceability (para.173).  The document recognizes how critical the rule of law is to protecting the environment and that good governance in national systems is indispensable to that endeavor.

Based on a quick perusal of the encyclical, virtually all of these positions and perspectives appear to be squarely within the mainstream of what experts in the field, both scientists as well as experts on law and governance, think about the environmental issues and associated governance matters.  It is thus surprising to me that some media outlets have described the encyclical as potentially very controversial.  However, we will see soon how the public reacts to  all of this.

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