Pope Francis, addressing climate change before a Congress dominated by Republicans -- more than half of whom deny its reality -- and Democrats who despair of doing anything about it, was a prophet of hope rather than doom.
"I call for a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity," he said Thursday, quoting his recent encyclical on climate change. "I am convinced that we can make a difference." Departing from his printed text, he added, "I am sure."
"I have no doubt that the United States -- and this Congress -- have an important role to play," he continued. "Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a 'culture of care' and 'an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time, protecting nature.'"
This pope is a risk-taker. During a recent teleconference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, veteran Vatican reporter John Allen made a pointed comment on Francis's recent environmental encyclical, Laudato Si'. He said that while measuring the impact of papal encyclicals has typically been difficult because so few meaningful metrics exist, this encyclical was different because Francis himself had taken the risk of providing a clear metric.
That metric, that yardstick, is the fast-approaching Paris Climate Change conference in November. In the encyclical, Francis explicitly directed his message to the leaders of the world as they prepare for that meeting.
This pope is a risk-taker.
Will they listen to him or not? If they do, his encyclical may seem historic in retrospect. If they don't, then his influence may seem slight or declining. Such is the risk that he has chosen to take. Underscoring Francis's determination, the Vatican recently held a conference for all of the environmental ministers of Europe, further focusing their attention on the encyclical and its relevance for the upcoming conference.
Scientifically, two claims have been in question, especially in the U.S. First, is global warming a fact or a hypothesis? (Fact, says the encyclical.) Second, is human activity a major factor in causing it or not? (It is, says the encyclical.) Francis has now placed both himself and his church squarely within the scientific consensus.
Given the long history of conflict between science and the Vatican (think Galileo), this makes this encyclical a historic document whether or not it moves the world to action in defense of the climate. Francis is the first of his kind in several ways -- first Latin-American pope, first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, first Jesuit pope and others. Yet most important may be the fact that, due qualification made, he is the first chemist pope. Before entering the Jesuit order in Buenos Aires, he had received the equivalent of an American junior college degree as a chemical technician and had worked for a time in a laboratory (and under a female supervisor). That early formation may have mattered at this crucial moment.
Climate change has lost out to immigration in the media coverage leading up to this papal visit. The massive refugee crisis in Europe and the inflamed immigration debate in the Republican Party have transfixed the media. Yet climate change has the capacity to generate a worldwide flood of desperate refugees that will utterly dwarf the wave now washing across Europe.
Climatologist Veerabhadran "Ram" Ramanathan, who worked closely with Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in preparing the climate change encyclical, commented at a conference in Oakland, CA in August that rising ocean levels in Bangladesh could send a million refugees streaming into India. Other such examples come readily to hand.
Ramanathan, who predicted back in 1980 the very climate change acceleration that we see happening since 2000 and who delivered an early warning as well about the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons, is, like Francis, a man of the global South. When thinking either about the consequences of climate change or the needed global response to it, he does not think in First World terms alone. Like the pope, he thinks also and always of the poorest of the poor, the bottom billion. It matters for him that they must cook the little food that they can procure by burning the little wood that they can gather. He reckons with their tiny but collectively significant carbon footprint as well as the monstrous footprint of the industrialized world's coal-burning power plants.
Religiously, John Allen noted at his CFR teleconference, the message of Pope Francis has been mercy. Whatever deeds the church may categorize as sinful, no sin is ever unforgivable. In the Gospels, Jesus says, again and again, "Your sins are forgiven." Such has been Francis's message to Catholic clergy and laity alike.
Politically, Allen said, the pope's message is "Remember the periphery." Thus, for him, First World climate change initiatives that do not go beyond the First World are morally unacceptable.
Climate change has the capacity to generate a worldwide flood of desperate refugees that will utterly dwarf the wave now washing across Europe.
For Ramanathan, such limited initiatives are also scientifically unacceptable. He insists that unless the periphery can be saved, even the center will perish. As Benjamin Franklin put it on the eve of the American Revolution, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
California Governor Jerry Brown and University of California President Janet Napolitano have recently tapped Ramanathan, director of UC San Diego's Center for Atmospheric Sciences, to head an effort involving all ten campuses of the university to develop and promote "scalable solutions" to the climate crisis. The pope may even have alluded to this effort when he said to Congress, "I am confident that America's outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead."
What is striking is that for this much-noticed scientist, the climate change crisis cannot be met unless the world's religious leadership also "scales up" its involvement. Writing in the prestigious journal Science while Laudato Si' was still in preparation, Ramanathan wrote: "The transformational step may well be a massive mobilization of public opinion by the Vatican and other religions for collective action to safeguard the well-being and the environment."
It may be a sign of coalitions to come that Ramanathan and his colleague and fellow Hindu, Partha Dasgupta, were welcomed so readily into a crucial collaboration with the Pontifical Academy. Last month, Ramanathan appeared with the Dalai Lama at UC Irvine in what became a prophetic moment in the Tibetan leader's 80th birthday celebration. As part of this "Global Compassion Summit," Ramanathan spoke on a climate change panel of how First World investment could enable the bottom billion to help save the planet by entirely skipping the fossil-fuel step on the path from wood-burning energy to solar energy. For the First World, the price of enabling such a step for so many millions would be high, but the cost of refusing to take it would be higher still.
The Dalai Lama endorsed this visionary proposal in a few typically pithy sentences. His swords-into-ploughshares challenge to the large audience in attendance: pay the cost of what the Indian scientist proposes with money recovered from cutbacks in world military spending.
Will political leaders listen? Will even Catholics listen to their pope? Allen reports that Vatican directives are in preparation to assist individual Catholic parishes, monasteries and other institutions to "go green," but he adds that many bishops are not waiting to get started.
A cartoon staple for decades has been the bearded prophet of doom bearing a sandwich board reading "The End Is Nigh." But increasingly scientists are appearing in public bearing the equivalent of that very sandwich board on their backs, and no one is laughing. In the U.S., floods last year in the east and fires this year in the west have added a note of urgency, tinged at moments with apocalyptic terror, to the climate change debate.
The pope's visit has surged many familiar intra-Catholic questions to the fore, including the ordination of women, the marriage of homosexuals, the celibacy of priests, the ethics of abortion and contraception, Vatican financial reform and even the fading pedophilia scandal. None of these is unimportant, yet the question of whether the human habitat -- the very breathable human atmosphere -- can be saved or not towers above them all. If Francis can make a difference here, he may yet go down in history as the pope who saved the world.
Jack Miles, Director of Religious Studies at UC Irvine, is a contributor to the forthcoming (October 22) UC report, "Bending the Curve," on scalable measures to mitigate climate change.