Roza Pati is a law professor and executive director of the graduate program in Intercultural Human Rights at St. Thomas University School of Law. She is a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is the council's U.S. representative.
"We are not God. The Earth was here before us, and it has been given to us. … God rejects every claim to absolute ownership."
With these words Pope Francis rings the bell for all human beings to wake up from the apathy, unquestioned faith in technology and reckless pursuit of profit when it comes to issues of the Earth — our common heritage and home. On June 18, the Holy Father released his momentous encyclical letter entitled Laudato Si' — words borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun, meaning, "Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us."
Subtitled "On Care for Our Common Home," the letter denotes as one of the most urgent problems of our time the harm that we, humans, have inflicted on our planet through "our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her." Pollution, our throwaway culture, climate change, the scarcity of water, loss of biodiversity, decline of the quality of life, the breakdown of society and global inequality are topics of concern that afflict human life along with every other denizen of our planet, including animals and plants.
Unfortunately, these critical problems have been addressed by "weak responses," with the devastating result of unsustainable development. Pope Francis issues a clarion call: we have to change our "lifestyle, production and consumption,"and we have to do this now. Relying on science, the pontiff concludes that it can no longer be contested that human activity is one of the main causes of climate change.
For us Floridians. the encyclical is a document to be embraced with enthusiasm and hope. Our great state with its long, low-lying coastline is uniquely susceptible to the effects of global warming.
For Florida, climate change represents an existential threat. By 2100, the rise of sea levels by 6.6 feet, as foreseen by the National Climate Assessment, would threaten 30 percent of Florida's beaches, while much of Miami-Dade County would be completely under water. Our barrier islands, Miami's coral reef, the Everglades, our drinking water, possibly contaminated by saltwater, are other most vulnerable resources. Higher sea-levels and storm surges, California-like droughts and increasing heat profoundly affect the lifestyle of the three-quarters of Florida's population that live on the coast; its agricultural industry; tourism; its communication and transportation infrastructure; property values; zoning, land use, and building codes; taxes, public works projects, etc.
Fair To The Environment
Florida faces a precarious future, and we all, as responsible citizens, should try to assess the problem and explore solutions. It is time to shake off denial, procrastination and lethargy and to change our lifestyle. This, as the encyclical says, in turn would "bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power."
Lawyers are well-positioned to try to find solutions to stop or slow down the negative effects of human action. Whether they work for governmental agencies, civil society, developers or other corporations, ethical lawyers can be a great force for the good of all, including the generations to come.
They can help draft laws and regulations beneficial to all, advise on the basis of conscience and hold accountable those who damage our environment, poison our air, pollute our oceans and harm the vulnerable. Law, indeed, should serve human beings and all of God's creation — not the other way around.
Laudato Si' speaks of the goal of human fulfillment. It envisions a law that will be fair to the environment and humans alike — with God's creation intrinsically and harmoniously linked together, supplementing and serving one another. Pope Francis challenges us to "forcefully reject the notion that our being, created in God's image and given dominion over the Earth, justifies absolute domination over other creatures."
On the contrary, as human beings in the image and likeness of God, endowed with intelligence, we must "respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world."
We have sickened the planet, but as Cardinal Peter K. Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican and leader of the team elaborating the first draft of Laudato Si', reiterated at the news conference presenting it: all is not lost on climate change; human beings can overcome the problem.
Now is the time to humbly "recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur." It is time for an ecological conversion, to gain joy and peace, recognizing that "less is more," and that this dimension of spirituality can prevail over the pernicious effects of the globalized technocratic paradigm.