The Pope’s Message on the Moral Issue of Climate Change

Jun 17th, 2015 | By | Category: Climate Change

By Suzanne York,

Somali refugees flee flooding in Dadaab, Kenya. [Photo Credit: UNHCR/B.Bannon]

Across the world many people are waiting with bated breath as one of society’s most influential religious leaders weighs in on the topic of climate change and its impact on people and the environment.

Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, is releasing an encyclical (a papal letter sent to bishops) just hours from now.  This could be a so-called “game changer” for climate issues, perhaps more than any warning by scientists and pleas by activists could ever do.

We Are All in This Together

It is encouraging to have more faith-based people and institutions involved in raising their voices and/or taking action on climate change.  Religion is a guiding force for many, and we will need people from all religions to get on board (and many have) to help address the climate-driven problems that we are already facing, which will only become more severe the longer we stick our collective heads in the sand.

In a draft version of the Vatican letter that was leaked to an Italian magazine, Francis says that global warming is “mostly” due to human activity and the burning of fossil fuels.  He calls for a radical change in behavior to save the planet for future generations and prevent the poor from suffering the worst effects of industry-induced environmental degradation.

Conservative Backlash

Conservatives in the U.S. are getting all worked up about the Pope’s report.  Religion (namely Christianity) is normally the conservative’s bread and butter and a huge part of their messaging.  This time, though, it’s an inconvenient message and some are attacking the Pope, saying he shouldn’t be discussing science and that global warming isn’t a scientific reality.

The UK Guardian reported that Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush joined forces with the coal industry and climate deniers in a gathering conservative backlash against the pope, lashing out against a leaked draft of the spiritual leader’s letter on climate change.

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe told a conference of climate deniers that “The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.”  However, polls show that American’s don’t feel like Congress is doing a good job.

And former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in an interview on Fox News Sunday that “I’m saying, what should the pope use his moral authority for? I think there are more pressing problems confronting the earth than climate change.”

The Pope is framing climate change as a moral issue, since the impacts disproportionately impact poor communities and developing nations.  Apparently helping people cope with rising sea levels, desertification, droughts, floods and more are not sufficiently moral issues for some Republicans.

Truly, it is sad that they feel they must discredit and belittle the Pope’s efforts to protect the environment and protect the lives of people, especially the poor.

Pope Francis [Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Catholic Church England and Wales]

Ignoring the Signs to Our Own Peril

In the leaked draft, Pope Francis says that the Earth “is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her. We have grown up thinking that we were her owners and dominators, authorized to loot her. The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.”

Perhaps the Pope or others can help explain how environmental and social justice problems are related and need to be address holistically. Trying to solve one problem while ignoring another is not a strategy that adequately helps poor people or protects the environment.  Respecting human rights and addressing injustice and inequity are critical if we are to create positive and long-lasting solutions to the environmental challenges increasing all around us.

Earlier this year, on a trip to the Philippines a country already facing climate impacts, Pope Francis stated that “It is man who has slapped nature in the face,” adding “I think we have exploited nature too much.”

It is gratifying to hear someone of the Pope’s stature acknowledge how humans are exploiting the planet.  For now, there is hope that we can turn things around and improves lives and the environment, for all of us, and for future generations.


Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

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