Why the Pope's Encyclical Laudato Si Is Important for Non-Catholics

06/17/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

One form of the Golden Rule is that people should treat others in ways they would like to be treated themselves. In one form or another, this is an idea that belongs to virtually every religious tradition, and can also be seen as a fundamental principle of how humans organize themselves societally.

In the case of climate change and other environmental issues addressed in the pope's encyclical, people of all creeds can use the Golden Rule to consider how we treat the environment today will affect society tomorrow and beyond.

We emit carbon dioxide today, and sea-level rises slowly over decades or centuries. Emissions here (in wealthier countries, historically) affect people there (poorer countries with less capability for adaptation) who probably will suffer the severest consequences first. Regardless of religion, people for the most part think about what kind of world they wish to leave for their children or great-grandchildren.

The Vatican isn't alone in making a case that, for the continued stability and progress of societies, we must modify the way we think about development and the environment. A globalized world cannot simply be reduced to liberalizing market transactions. Given ecological and material limits, we must recognize basic rights to food, shelter and health care; learn to measure well-being in something other than monetary terms; and remedy growing inequality, while at the same time mitigating and adapting to a changing climate. Grassroots movements in the U.S. and around the world are increasingly active in these arenas as witnessed by the Climate March last September, the Occupy Movement, the Divestment Movement, the opposition by two million Europeans to the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU and many more.

Pope Francis will frame the need to mitigate climate change in theological terms that follow his religious tradition and will reach more than one billion adherents around the world Laudato Si will also follow a decades-old tradition of papal statements expressing solidarity with the poor and the need to care for creation. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in 2009: "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa." But the deep-seated and simple message is the one that most of us learn as we grow up, independent of faith (or non-faith) tradition -- the Golden Rule.

Laudato Si will be an important tool for motivating Catholics, as well as those of other religious faiths, charging all to take seriously the challenge of climate change. More broadly, this encyclical can be seen as a reflection of these times and how they are being read by a younger generation not satisfied with playing by the rules of their parents -- rules that served some purposes well, but have also created failures and serious problems this generation must deal with as they come to important decision-making positions.

We are fortunate humankind has been able to use its intellectual capacity to understand the looming threat of climate change. The very secular Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2013 report, summarized it this way, "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." This formulation translates into a 95 percent likelihood, according to the unanimous approval of that language by government representatives to the IPCC from around the world, that our species has become a critical force of nature changing the very character of our planet. During just my lifetime of 54 years, we have been responsible for more than three-quarters of total historical carbon dioxide emissions. That is, our influence on the climate and other parts of the earth system is growing rapidly. Scientists at the end of the 19th century had already projected that large changes in CO2 concentrations would cause temperatures to rise; they just did not really believe we would be able to actually put as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we have since done.

Our understanding of the earth's climate system has improved and the world has seen a remarkable surge in renewable energy production during the past few decades. Costs of solar photovoltaics, wind turbines and batteries for storage have decreased dramatically, and installations of these technologies, as well as concentrating solar power, geothermal, solar thermal have all increased. Progress is being made in developing, implementing and linking information technology capabilities with renewables to help solve some of the challenges of in transforming our energy systems. We are seeing the beginning shifts in transportation, toward electrification as well as increases in the use of bicycles, public transportation as well as car-sharing and ride-sharing models. Local food systems are booming, creating many side benefits beyond the potential for reduction in carbon emissions.

In the case of climate change, the key issue is how we expand and internalize the notion of the Golden Rule to take into account other parts of nature as integral to our well-being, and how we evolve our capacity for thinking over greater spatial scales and longer time spans.

Regardless of belief system, we must now continue to push our intellects and our hearts to internalize the empathy for others called for by the Golden Rule -- for those both elsewhere and in future generations -- and act accordingly.