Will the Pope's DC Visit Bring New Political Leadership on Climate Justice?

silhouette of refinery plant on evening background
silhouette of refinery plant on evening background

Earlier this year, Pope Francis authored a 200-page letter to church leaders around the world, grounding the moral call for climate action in centuries of Catholic social teachings and explicitly linking climate change and other fundamental issues of justice such as economic inequality. This week he will address Congress, with this issue likely to be a major part of his message.

As someone who works for an organization that approaches the problem of climate change from the perspective of the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities, I welcome the spotlight that Pope Francis has been putting on the moral dimension of climate justice. But the Pope's moral leadership for climate justice clearly shows that we desperately need political leadership to change policies and regulations and start to build a more just and sustainable world.

Where might that political leadership come from?

If you said "Congress" or "negotiators at the United Nations climate talks," well, I admire your optimism.

If you said "the Obama administration," it would be nice if this were true. Unfortunately, the administration's climate policy has been contradictory at best. The Clean Power Plan is an important initiative, full and effective implementation of which is a must. But the administration continues to pursue an all-of-the-above energy policy, opening up drilling in Alaska while knowing full well that fossil fuels must be kept in the ground if we are to solve the climate crisis.

Furthermore, many are trumpeting the Obama administration's "climate leadership" at the international level - especially at the United Nations' climate talks that will culminate in a summit Paris this December. Unfortunately, the U.S. is deeply constrained by a Congress controlled by climate denialists. In this context, U.S. "leadership" in these spaces essentially means that international climate policymaking is being held hostage by Congressional Republicans.

Do we really want to let a global agreement for climate action be brought down by the lowest common denominator of climate denialism? That road leads to disaster.

Unfortunately, the fact is that political leadership on climate action is tough to come by amongst world leaders - who are too influenced by powerful, entrenched interests that are resistant to the kind of transformational change needed to address the crisis. Real leadership has to come from the bottom up.

And this is where there's hope. There are amazing things happening around the world in response to climate change. Prices for technologies like small solar panels have fallen dramatically, providing huge opportunities for clean, affordable, decentralized energy access for all, including the world's poorest. Impacted communities in some of the poorest countries in the world are demonstrating their resilience and ingenuity by leading the way on innovative community- and ecosystem-based solutions to climate adaptation, such as agro-ecological approaches to food security.

While people and communities are leading the way on solutions, they are also fueling a vibrant global movement pushing for the just transition to a new sustainable economy. Here at home, frontline communities fighting pipelines and extractive industries, divestment efforts, and congregations and faith-based organizations are leading with a vision for a just, sustainable world. And many of these people will come together in DC and New York later this week in a big show of support for climate justice.

Internationally, a series of mobilizations around the world both before and after the Paris summit will signal that whatever happens at that summit, people are organizing and will put huge pressure on political leaders to follow through on their commitments and, indeed, strengthen them significantly so that they actually live up to the scale and urgency of the problem.

How does the Pope fit into all of this? If his papal letter and address to Congress can spur further climate activism in the US, and force obstinate members of Congress to think through the real implications of climate denial - or at least marginalize those who refuse to face up to reality - it would provide a huge boost to an already growing demand for climate justice.

The link between creation care and care for the poorest and most vulnerable is something that has never been more important. The Catholic Church is hardly perfect when it comes to being socially and politically progressive, but the long Catholic social justice tradition is powerful and reaches billions of people. In that spirit the Pope's leadership on climate justice is powerful and necessary - now is the time for political leaders to follow suit, and for people to demand that they do so.