For a September 17 article at USA Today, I spoke with Traci Watson about the potential political impact of Pope Francis’ visit on political debate over climate change — MCN
Pope Francis wants you to turn off the A/C.
That’s one of the implications of Francis’ extraordinary recent statement about the environment, which firmly blames humans for global warming and laments the impact of technology and capitalism on what the pope calls “sister Earth.” Released shortly before the pope’s U.S. visit, the 184-page document is the most sweeping and high-profile religious declaration about climate change and a call for radical reform in all sectors of society.
The pope’s statement, which takes the form of a teaching document called an encyclical, could influence the thinking and habits of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But its impact won’t necessarily end there. The encyclical could well affect high-stakes climate talks this December, when 200 countries hope to finalize a treaty to cut pollution linked to climate change. And some experts say Francis’ words could help shift attitudes well beyond his own flock.
The document will draw “wide attention because of the content but also because of who the pope is — a very well-respected moral leader,” says Mary Evelyn Tucker ofYale University’s Forum in Religion and Ecology. The pope’s message, she says, is “calling us to change who we are as humans.”
Never before has a pope made the environment the subject of an encyclical, an authoritative document meant to inspire university curricula and Sunday sermons alike. Other religious leaders have spoken out about climate change, but none has commanded blanket media attention like Francis.
Francis signaled from the earliest days of his papacy that he would make the health of the planet a central issue. At his installation Mass in 2013, he asked world leaders to be “protectors of one another and of the environment.” He adopted a more eco-friendly lifestyle, favoring smaller cars and modest living quarters.
The pontiff’s environmental encyclical urges readers to follow his lead. The document, titled Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), expresses dismay about the massive amounts of energy expended just for air conditioning, and signals approval for those who recycle, car pool and turn off lights. There is “nobility” in such “little daily actions,” the pope declares, adding that even reusing an item instead of throwing it out “can be an act of love.”
But it’s not such small stuff that’s the document’s main focus. The encyclical repeatedly condemns modern materialism, warning that the stubborn adherence by a small fraction of the world’s population to “a consumerist lifestyle … can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.” Technology, the pope says, can do much good but has created further division and social inequality. And today’s market-driven modern economies have devastated the planet, leaving it “an immense pile of filth.”
Francis sides unequivocally with the body of science blaming climate change on greenhouse gases that are the byproduct of fossil-fuel use by factories, cars and power plants. The encyclical concedes that factors such as solar cycles may also play a role, but the document pins “most global warming” on “human activity.”