The Universal Common Good: Our Common Home

March 19, 2015

Allegory of hope; Oil on canvas, Francesco Guardi, 1747.

While it is anyone’s prudent guess at this point, on the likely umbrella or core messages within the Eco-encyclical expected in June or July 2015; Pope Francis has spoken on various occasions about the need for a radical new financial and economic system to avoid human inequality and ecological devastation. The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are interrelated; and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.

At a Latin American and Asian peasants meeting in October 2014, Pope Francis said: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.  The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth.”

The idea of a new economic order has long been the clarion call of the sustainability movement, but any true system change – means trade-offs and with win-lose outcomes there is no simple reform formula that will work for all countries. Countries will need creative experiments and to “learn by doing” so as to find the right low carbon path. In essence, a multi-pronged approach is needed to get to a new social economic order: market-led responses (technological innovation, price adjustments, etc.), government-led responses (e.g. regulations, carbon-pricing, etc.) and value-based responses (e.g. getting people to rethink their priorities). (Bill Barron, 2009)

To start with the market response, the British government’s Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change (2006), said that climate change was the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. It’s a market failure because polluters have been allowed to treat the atmosphere as theirs – cause untold damage without footing the bill. This market failure can be corrected by putting a price on carbon: via market-led responses such carbon trading, technological innovation and pricing of ecosystem services.

Though the carbon market has many inherent structural flaws, it is useful to remember that markets are not only favoured for their economic efficiency, but also because they are an effective means of mobilising large numbers of people towards common societal goals (Hirschman 1977/1997). An interesting example of ‘learning by doing’ is how China is developing a carbon trading market via seven pilot emissions trading systems (ETS), which are serving as testing ground for a national ETS to be implemented after 2016. If those trading schemes were to be linked, China could become the second largest cap-and-trade programme, aside from the European Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

Another vital approach is that our governments respond with appropriate regulatory frameworks, both international and national, so as to stimulate innovation and change. Public investment is needed on a huge scale, in fuel efficiency, building efficiency, infrastructure, transportation and renewable energy. To do this, governments must engage more directly with the private sector on investments and carbon markets and climate funds should work in conjunction with one another. (see World Bank 2010).

The real test will be how regulations will be enforced, which ultimately will mean significant government intervention and central planning. An idea that reeks of socialism to Neoliberals and climate deniers. But the reality of climate change is that central planning and collective action will be needed, on an unprecedented global scale.

Alongside responses by government and business; tantamount to galvanizing action is the ‘value led approach’ that shapes a community’s conscience and action. What Pope Francis’s encyclical will add then, according to Cardinal Turkson when he spoke recently at the Trócaire 2015 Lenten Lecture: “At the heart of this integral ecology is the call to dialogue and a new solidarity, a changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value that directs our search for the global, the universal common good.”

Turkson’s thoughts on integral ecology echo what Oxfam said in 2012: “Any vision of sustainable development fit for the 21st century must recognise that eradicating poverty and achieving social justice is inextricably linked to ensuring ecological stability and renewal” – A Safe and Just Space for Humanity.

But ultimately, what Pope Francis’ encyclical will do is link Roman Catholic teachings to protecting life with preserving the environment and his support for climate action will be a much needed catalyser. After all, who else but religious leaders can talk about our moral duty, about  the need for a change of human heart – for mercy and compassion to act on climate change? I hope that the encyclical will serve as a sturdy roof for our common home, and will as Turkson said can “help to orient and integrate us as humans within the wider universe, to identify what is most important to us, what we revere, sustain and protect as sacred.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 5.30.55 PMThis blog post is written by Ciara Shannon, a GCCM founding member and Asia Coordinator for, the international, multi-faith climate campaign.