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June 29, 2015

EDITORIAL: The Francis Moment: A Moral Call to Action on Climate Change

By Claire Markham, Myriam Alexander-Kearns, Connor Hayes

Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’s highly anticipated second encyclical, highlights one of the most pressing and politically challenging issues for the entire global family: climate change.

A long history of Catholic thinking and teaching on environmental protection precedes “Laudato Si.” The title is from a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, the pope’s namesake. And the encyclical follows the lead of Pope Francis’s predecessors: In a 1972 address, Pope Paul VI said, “To rule creation means for the human race not to destroy it but to perfect it; to transform the world … into a beautiful abode where everything is respected.” Pope John Paul II warned more than 25 years ago that greenhouse gases had reached crisis proportions. And Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly commented that today’s “throw-away culture” shows little reverence for shared natural resources, and he has warned that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.” In a 2014 message at a meeting of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, Pope Francis noted, “The effective struggle against global warming will only be possible … with a collective answer that is able to overcome attitudes of mistrust and to promote a culture of solidarity, of encounter and of dialogue able to show the responsibility to protect the planet and the human family.”

Faith-based environmental advocacy is an American tradition

From native spiritual rituals to the Protestant push to create a National Park System to the multifaith marchers at last year’s People’s Climate March, “Laudato Si” is only the latest rallying point in a long history of faith-driven action for environmental protection in the United States. Faith leaders’ calls to action can unite a tradition’s adherents, and a sense of moral urgency helps create political will and catalyze action on important issues. Faith-based groups, spurred by concern for those who are most vulnerable, have energetically responded to the call to work together for more equitable stewardship and sharing of natural resources.

Catholic Climate Covenant, a national group that works with parishes to address climate change and advocates for “faith-informed climate policies,” has used the core theology of the encyclical to mobilize Catholics across the country to take action on the environment. In other faith traditions, more than 340 rabbis from across the Jewish religious spectrum have signed on to a document that calls on Jews to “explore together our responsibilities toward the Earth and all humankind.” Evangelical Environmental Network President and CEO Mitchell C. Hescox released a letter in anticipation of the encyclical, stating that all children deserve “the promise and holy covenant of clean air and a healthy climate.” Green for All has engaged with black churches to build a green religious movement—one that recognizes the inherent dignity of all people and their communities, especially people of color. Interfaith Power & Light, an interfaith environmental group that has developed a national network of state-based chapters, emphasizes that “all are called” to care for the climate, encouraging non-Catholics to join in celebrating this encyclical. Buddhist leaders from communities all over the country signed a declaration in May calling for global action on climate change and validating the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of limits on atmospheric carbon.

‘Laudato Si’ calls for political action

Building upon this long history of faith-based environmental activism, “Laudato Si” represents an opportunity for renewed commitment to protect the nation’s most vulnerable communities against the ravages of climate change. Importantly, the encyclical relies on climate science as a starting point for moral action.

The world’s leading climate scientists agree that the climate is warming and has already affected the health of humans and global ecosystems. Scientists expect climate change impacts such as heat waves, species extinction, sea-level rise, and global food insecurity to worsen with unmitigated warming. Acknowledging this scientific consensus, the encyclical warns that if climate change continues unabated, “this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

The pope’s message sets scientific fact in a moral framework and calls for “decisive action, here and now.” Timing the encyclical’s release with the ramp up to December, when world leaders will meet in Paris to finalize a new international climate agreement, Pope Francis wrote that he hoped to inspire a “global consensus” to confront climate change. He expressed hope for a positive outcome from the upcoming negotiations, “so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”

While global leaders work toward a consensus, policymakers in the United States have already laid the groundwork for the kind of action the pope advised. President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan lays out a “blueprint for steady, responsible national and international action to slow the effects of climate change so we leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations.” By the end of the summer, the president will release the linchpin of his climate strategy, the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon pollution from the electric power sector by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

While taking action to mitigate climate action is critical, it is equally important to make communities more resilient—that is, better able to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate-related threats and impacts. Pope Francis noted that those living in poverty suffer more acutely from the impacts of climate change but do not have the financial means to “adapt to climate change or face natural disasters.” Even in the United States, low-income communities are “particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events due to their poor housing quality, poor environmental conditions, and economic instability.”

The Obama administration has already announced new actions to protect vulnerable communities—including the elderly, children, the sick, low-income populations, and communities of color—from the health-related impacts of climate change. Congress should do its part to strengthen community resilience, increase access to good jobs, and lower energy bills by partnering with state and local governments to invest in low-carbon and resilient transportation and energy infrastructure.

In addition to these measures, policymakers should look for ways to build social cohesion so that all Americans can cooperate to achieve shared well-being and strengthen their communities’ climate resilience. Faith communities are uniquely positioned to help build both cohesion and climate resilience and can offer a prophetic, inspiring voice to call others—including political leaders—to join them in action.

Called to hope, spurred to action

The enthusiastic reception of Pope Francis and his encyclical offer a galvanizing opportunity for faith and environmental groups to work together to bring about sustained action on climate change. At the close of “Laudato Si,” the pope reminds his global audience that God’s love “constantly impels us to find new ways forward.” Without a doubt, this encyclical can lead the way, and religious and environmental advocacy communities around the world should seize this opportunity to advance common goals for the common good.

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