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Spring 2016 stories

A person speaking to a small crowd in front of a colorful mural.

A person speaking to a small crowd in front of a colorful mural.

Public Policy and the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis

Excerpt from Public Lecture, “Our Future on a Shared Planet” Conference, Santa Clara University1
By Mayor Sam Liccardo


A man smiling in an outdoor setting with greenery in the background.

By Sam Liccardo
Mayor, San Jose, California

As an elected official standing in front of you, I know you are undoubtedly familiar with the routine when elected officials speak. Usually you hear one of two things. You either hear what you already know or you hear them ask you for something. And I see no reason why today should be any different. So I am going to tell you what you already know and I am going to ask you for something.

However, I am going to interrupt that sequence by also committing a bit of political suicide and offer some criticisms of a document that I think virtually everyone in this room—I’m guessing by your attendance today—strongly agrees with. A document with great support globally. Because I think some criticism promotes dialogue.

A few disclaimers: My view is a first world view. That is, I have a very distinctive perspective sitting here in Silicon Valley, where many of us know full well that criticism of the technocratic paradigm strikes right to our hearts. Certainly we are limited by our perspectives and how we grew up.

Second, I am an elected official. And we know politics is the art of the possible. Everything beyond the art of the possible belongs in the realm of faith. And Pope Francis is in the faith business. I am in the “possible” business, and so occasionally that may mean differences of views. Nonetheless, clearly this document, Laudato Si’, compels us.

Issued last spring by the Vatican, Laudato Si’ is profoundly countercultural within the development of political thought in this country and in most countries. The notion that we share this planet and should all take responsibility for our shared home is contrary to the phrase of former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

Colorful mural with a smiling face surrounded by children looking at it.

This vibrant mural is one of the projects created by Art for Change (Arte para el Cambio), one of Santa Clara University’s Thriving Neighbors Initiative after school programs for third and fourth grade students at Washington Elementary School in San Jose, California. The mural was produced in partnership with artist Carlos Rodriguez of the New Edge Creative Services (pictured here) who taught several lessons on art and vocation to the students. Photo Courtesy of Eric Bonilla.

I suspect that you have felt as deeply challenged as I have in reading the document. It is not easy stuff. It’s even harder to implement. But as a local elected official, I think this document moves the conversation forward in several very important ways, and I will outline four of these ways here today.

The first, most critical contribution of the Laudato Si’ is that it elevates the moral dimensions of climate change and the care for our common home. Pope Francis takes the conversation out of the routine bickering we see so often in Washington and elevates climate change to a concern that involves all of us, whether Democrat or Republican.

The second way this document moves us forward significantly is by advancing the notion that the challenge we face with climate change cannot be solved simply with technological solutions. We would all love to see that wonderful invention that will enable carbon sequestration to happen throughout the globe; certainly I’ll be rooting for it as much as anyone else. But we also know that technology alone isn’t going to get us there. As Ron Heifetz put it, we need adaptive change, not merely technical change.2 And of course that’s not a very common response from a political system. We have a hard enough time just getting to solutions of any kind. 

Third, I think there is a profound local emphasis in this document—and wonderfully so. As it says in Laudato Si’: “While the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference” (§179). It is clear as we look around our own country and globally that national governments haven’t exactly stepped up to the plate. The document criticizes even the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development as being largely ineffectual. As it says, we have countries that place their national interests above the global common good. Not an easy thing to overcome. The good news is that we are seeing really dramatic changes and wonderful innovations in cities throughout this world. And I know grassroots community leaders like Poncho Guevara [see page 34 of this issue] are making meaningful change every day at the local level.

People listening to a guide with a scenic Appalachian backdrop.

Justin Wojcik

Finally, the last important and transformative element of this document is linking the environment and social justice. The cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Those who bear the impact of environmental degradation most severely also suffer the most from economic deprivation. We hear this from Pope Francis routinely, and I think many of us are welcoming this message and wish we heard it more in our public discourse.

So I have told you what you already know. Now let’s move on to what I think are the limitations of this document from my own biased, first world, political point of view. Let me be very clear: This is criticism around the edges of a critically important document for the world. First, Laudato Si’ undoubtedly holds profound suspicion of technology. It is certainly Pope Francis’ right to take on the technocratic paradigm, which he describes as a unilateral, overly-focused commitment to technology, and a one-dimensional, unreflective view of technology as some kind of panacea for the world’s ills. I think we all agree it’s not the panacea—but it is a very, very important part of the solution. Technology is nothing more than a tool. Technology enabled me to get to city hall in an electric vehicle that was powered by solar panels on my house.

So we all recognize that technology can be used poorly or well. But we absolutely need technology to be able to move forward. I say this primarily because we see in the developing world extraordinary transformation in economies in China and India, for example. Yet these are still largely economies that depend enormously on coal. We also see millions of people moving into the middle class or something closer to it every year, and that’s a good thing. It’s the only way people can move into a standard of living that reflects more global egalitarianism and social justice. We are going to need all the tools we have here in Silicon Valley and throughout the world to enable that to happen.

A speaker at a podium with three panelists in front of an audience.

Joanne Lee

Furthermore, as we think about the limitations of the document, I know many of you are familiar with the very frontal attack on carbon credit. According to the document, “The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution….” (§171). Laudato Si’ goes on to criticize cap-and-trade systems. Now, for those of us in the state of California, I think we all recognize it was not easy getting cap-and-trade implemented here. It was far from “quick and easy.” In fact, it is so hard that it hasn’t really been implemented anywhere else in the country—at least not very extensively.

An awful lot of economists believe that a critical path for market economies is to price carbon. If we don’t do that, we’re going to have a very difficult time orienting an economic system with appropriate incentives to conserve and to innovate. Many would say we’ve taken a revolutionary step in California, and this is not to say our work is done. However, we need to embrace these mechanisms; we need to be able to work with the market, particularly if we move in the realm of the possible.

So I’ve offered a bit of what you already know and a few criticisms. To conclude, I would like to move on to the last element for today and that is the “ask.” I’m asking you to get engaged. Many of you are already engaged. But I would like to ask you to get engaged with us in City of San Jose as we seek to prioritize select sustainable development goals from among the seventeen goals that were identified by the Sustainable Cities Initiative advanced by the Vatican and Jeffery Sachs, a prominent economist working closely with the United Nations. We need your help in identifying which goals we should be target with our scarce resources and how best we can meet these goals. We have a whole lot of work to do and I look forward to doing it with all of you.


Sam Liccardo took office as mayor of San Jose in January 2015 and at the age of 44 became one of the youngest mayors in San Jose’s history. Prior to being elected mayor, Liccardo served two terms on the City Council, where he led efforts to revitalize downtown, preserve San Jose’s hillsides and open space, boost funding for affordable housing, and open a world-class soccer stadium for the San Jose Earthquakes. Liccardo began his public service as a Santa Clara County District Attorney and is a proud graduate of San Jose’s Bellarmine College Prep, Georgetown University, Harvard Law School, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government.



  1. Sam Liccardo, “Public Policy and the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis,” public lecture, Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis conference, 4 November 2015, Santa Clara University.
  2. Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009).
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