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A Spiritual Awakening About Climate Change

06/19/2015 03:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2015

Pope Francis has just issued a papal encyclical -- a teaching letter -- focused on the theological virtue of faith, and his message, in essence, is simple: If you have faith in God's Creation, then you must act to stop global warming. It is, according to the Pope, a moral imperative that we protect this earthly home created by God for the benefit of man, from the potentially irreparable and catastrophic damage being done to it by mankind.

The encyclical is a powerful environmental and humanistic message, forcefully articulated by one of the world's foremost spiritual leaders. Hopefully this message from a global leader with no political affiliation will pull a broad range of climate deniers and skeptics into the camp of those who want to act forcefully to slow -- and then roll back -- greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late for our planet.

But already, the reflexive political denial of climate science is underway. Rick Santorum, often described and self-identified as a "devout" Catholic, notes that in the past the Church "has gotten it wrong a few times on science," and he suggests that the Pope should "[leave] science to the scientists" (which is, of course, doubly ironic since it is, in fact, the world's scientists who have raised the global alarm on this issue, and it is the Pope, not Mr. Santorum, who earned an advanced degree in Chemistry).

Perhaps Mr. Santorum is referring to the Church's infamous and ill-informed hostility 400 years ago towards Galileo, who was accused of heresy for postulating that the universe was heliocentric. Of course, the key difference between then and now -- apart from 400 years -- is that then, the Church was arguing against science. Now, Pope Francis is embracing the science, the irrefutability of global warming and the role of mankind in causing it. And this is what makes this papal teaching so manifestly important: On this, the fundamental issue of our time, the Pope is combining science and spirituality.

From the Pope's reliance on science to define the problem, it is not a far reach to the recognition that technology will provide the solution; we need not just rely on hope and prayer. Today, we have the suite of technologies from carbon capture to solar energy to alternative energy vehicles, which can turn the tide in the effort to dramatically curtail greenhouse gas emissions. However mass deployment of those technologies has yet to occur, and that is where the spirituality of the Pope's encyclical message to protect our habitat may provide the societal tipping point to a sustainable future.

We all make decisions every day that reflect our core values. Whether you count yourself as one of the Pope's 1.2 billion Catholic co-religionists around the globe or are just impressed by the Holy Father's deeply compassionate concern for the future of all humanity that underpins his teaching, you should pay heed what he has to say and then you should act. There are a myriad of things you could do, but, at the very least, you should be conscious of the consumer decisions you make every day that directly expand or contract your personal carbon footprint, and you should generally be aware of the carbon policies of the companies you support, indirectly, through your purchase decisions.

As for those intransigent public policy makers who oppose acting now to protect the future health of our planet, you are important because you are in a position to block meaningful government enactment of sensible national and international policies guiding us to a soft landing in a sustainable future. Hopefully after some reflection -- and, perhaps, some prayer -- the Pope's teaching will be the clarion call you need to abandon your opposition. Given the enormity of the challenge, we need to be unified in a nonpartisan, all-hands-on-deck effort to save this planet before it is too late.

I say to you: Look around and see how isolated you have become on this, the transcendent societal issue of our time. Where have all your "natural" allies gone? The corporate chieftains, normally aligned with your pro-business wing, abandoned you on this issue years ago with the formation of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. Same with the nearly endless succession of retired military and intelligence leaders, normally embedded within your national security wing, who have spoken about the potential for the destabilization of the globe as a result of the consequences of climate change. And now the Pope, leader of the Church whose authority on social issues so animates the "religious right," joins the call to save the planet.

You stand alone, overwhelmed by the irrefutability of the science, and out of touch with the viewpoint of every informed element of our society, with your only ally being ignorance, denial or a perverse hyperpartisan instinct, which causes you to think that if President Obama and other progressives are for something, then you are politically bound to be opposed to it. And that would be silly except, given the enormity of what is at stake, it's actually tragic.

For the rest of us, let's let the Pope have the final word. When it comes to the reality of climate change and man's role in causing it, with the issuance of the Pope's encyclical, everything that has to be said on the topic has been said, by everyone who needs to have said it. It is time for action.

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