"Protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and sacred duty for all people of faith and conscience." Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Pope Francis's much anticipated encyclical on the environment and address to the UN provides Catholics a rare opportunity to take the lead on presenting the moral argument surrounding climate change. While scientific, economic and political arguments regarding climate change have been made for decades, a moral case has yet to fully materialize. Some climate change deniers, in an effort to avoid a discussion on the morality behind the issue, are using their personal religious beliefs to legitimize their views. Luckily, Pope Francis and Catholics around the world aren't buying into such obtuse arguments on climate change.
A study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found Catholics believe in climate change more than most other Christian denominations. Furthermore, more Catholics than non-Catholic Christians believe humans are mostly causing climate change. Why is this the case?
First and foremost, Catholics who believe in the common good are always thinking about the poor, sick and marginalized. Furthermore, Catholics think about why people are poor, sick and marginalized and take steps to end such suffering. Pope Francis once aptly stated, "What you think, you must feel and put into effect. Your information comes down to your heart and you put it into practice." This is the core of Catholic moral teachings: using the mind, heart, and body in unison to spread love and joy to those around us.
Morality means making a distinction between right and wrong, good or bad. For Catholics, morality has always been framed in the context of promoting and protecting life. Therefore, will life be promoted and protected when coastlines erode or lakes dries up? Ask the residents of Florida and California these questionsㅡ for many are already experiencing such environmental challenges. Millions of lives are already being affected by climate change. If nothing is done to curtail or prepare for climate change, millions more will needlessly suffer.
In the United States at least, a confrontational divide between religion and state exists. Such a divide touches every aspect of society: from debates over marriage to traditionally non-partisan issues such as science and how it relates to the environment. Such a divide wasn't always the case.
In the 1950s, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower inserted the phrase "Under God" into the pledge of allegiance and made "In God we trust" the official national motto. With these measures, it's clear Eisenhower was a deeply religious man. Yet Eisenhower's religious beliefs didn't stop him from signing into law the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA as it's commonly known. By and large, religious beliefs and the pursuit of scientific advancements lived in harmony during the Eisenhower administration.
Today however, NASA is facing budget cuts due to climate denying elected officials who use their personal religious beliefs to shape national policy. Overseeing NASA is Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texasㅡ a man who believes studying earth's atmosphere isn't part of NASA's core mission and who announced his bid for the presidency at a college which denies evolution and believes the Earth is only six thousand years old. In contrast, Pope Francis and the Vatican believe the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are correct.
Senator Cruz, and those who share his views, constitute a small, vocal minority in government who don't accept the science behind climate changeㅡ yet still exert tremendous political and economic influence on the issue.
The question then becomes: will Catholics who believe in the dangerous effects of climate change allow a small group to compromise efforts to promote and protect the common good? Furthermore, even if climate change is found to not be largely caused by mankind's actions, are not the health and safety concerns surrounding climate change enough for concrete action?
A marriage between faith based morality, science and economics could be the final nail in the coffin for climate change deniers. Climate change deniers have already lost the debate within the scientific community and investors are increasingly pressuring financial institutions to disclose information on firms which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Prior to a U.N. climate summit last September, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, called on corporations to recognize the environmental impact of the products they sell to consumers.
If scientific and economic leaders are already calling for action on climate change, what will happen if Pope Francis actively petitions 1.2 billion Catholics to take up the cause?
Knowing the influence Pope Francis has over Catholics and non-Catholics, attempts to discredit or downplay the importance of the pope's encyclical on the environment and address to the UN is being vigorously pursued by special interest groups and lobbyists. Climate change deniers recently tried to persuade the pope that "there is no global warming crisis." Such persuasions have fell on deaf ears from within the Vatican. Perhaps special interest groups and lobbyists are worried about a faith based discussion on the morality of climate change because they know social justice Christians have little interest in money or power, but rather the protection and promotion of life.
Catholics can't miss the opportunity to shape the moral discussion on what to do about climate change. It is not in our nature to let others debate and decide issues which affect the common good. Now is the time for Catholics to stand alongside Pope Francis in his crusade to combat the suffering climate change brings with it.