Throngs of people poured into Washington, New York and Philadelphia during Pope Francis’s visit to see him, receive his blessing and hear his words.
Addressing Congress, Pope Francis touched on numerous themes, but reference to the environment will continue to receive great scrutiny: “In Laudato Si, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ (par. 61) and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” In his environmental encyclical, he affirmed, referencing the bishops of Bolivia, that countries having benefited the most economically from the enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, “have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused” (par. 170). Ultimately we Americans face a moral obligation.
Curiously, many people in Developing Countries might have missed the pope’s visit to the U.S.–people in villages of Bangladesh or on small South Pacific islands–yet, his message to the world’s wealthiest nation may directly affect them.
About 100 million people world-wide live one meter above sea level. Some 650 million live along coastal areas that could be submerged if global climate change melts the great ice packs and raises the ocean level. Lives, cultures and livelihoods depend on a stable environment.
If a person accidentally kills someone by reckless behavior, it’s considered manslaughter. If the lifestyle of the world’s wealthy destroys a culture, or people, it approaches genocide. This is why human activity contributing to climate change is a moral issue.
Pope Francis cited the Golden Rule before Congress: Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you. The basis of Christian morality is interconnectedness. We are our brother’s (sister’s) keeper! And, we can’t submerge them!
The first defense against this moral responsibility is denial. Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, a climatologist and evangelical Christian at Texas Tech University cites three reasons for the disconnect between believers and the findings of science.
- “The evidence is not easy to see.” With air conditioning and adjustable thermostats everything looks fine. But, recall photos of birds and shorelines caked with oil after the BP spill. Our dependence on oil is easy to see, and our lifestyle can display some graphically bad effects.
- “Confusion is rampant.” The fossil fuel industries have adopted the “tobacco strategy” that sows doubt about scientific conclusions, e.g. does smoking really cause cancer? The oil and coal industries maintain that human activity contributing to climate change is not certain. In reality, the peer-reviewed work of 97 percent of climatologists agree it is. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps the sun’s rays and heats the earth, has risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. Science can measure CO2 precisely, and temperatures can be tracked. Conclusion: human activity is a major factor in climate change.
- “The truth is frightening.” To change our lifestyle appears threatening, yet “to redirect our steps,” in the words of Pope Francis, may begin simply with turning off lights to save electricity, consolidating trips to use less gas, and avoiding drive-through lines to reduce idling. Small steps can develop an awareness that we are interconnected with one another and creation.
The way forward Pope Francis mentioned in his speech before Congress and wrote in his encyclical: “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (par. 3). This dialogue will require putting aside ideologies and polarized thinking. It asks for honesty within and with others.
The dialogue can begin with a walk in nature, especially as the leaves turn and vibrant colors dot the landscape. It will deepen when we see the face of homeless as individuals struggling for the same dignified life we enjoy. Eventually, it will avoid scoring points in debates, and nurture that interconnectedness that exposes the moral sentiment allowing us to take responsibility for creation.
Climate change is a moral issue. And, Pope Francis reminds us, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs” (par. 11.)