"The climate is a common good -- of all, and for all".
With these simple words from his recent encyclical, Pope Francis has opened a new front in the debate over global warming and environmental degradation. Speaking of the need to change lifestyles, as well as methods of production and rampant consumption, he went on to warn that if the current trend of rising temperatures continues, "this century could witness unprecedented climate change and unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us".
Pope Francis clearly understands the solution to this problem, but he also acknowledges the core problem that we have yet to face: "In the coming years the emission of carbon dioxide and other heavily polluting gas [must be] reduced drastically...Many of those who hold more resources, and economic or political power, appear to be concentrated on masking the problems and hiding the symptoms, rather than trying to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change".
Predictably, these sentiments elicited a swift reaction from right wing politicians in Washington who scrambled to dismiss his message. Global warming Denier-in-Chief, Senator James Inhofe, growled, "The pope ought to stay with his job, and we'll stay with ours."
But speaking with wisdom and concern for all people, and the earth that sustains them, is indeed Job 1 for Pope Francis. Uniquely, he has no political agenda. He speaks from the heart (not the Heartland) with unimpeachable moral authority. Who else can address this issue without the taint of politics? Moreover, Pope Francis has a particular responsibility to those without a voice at the centers of power in affluent countries. As he noted, "Many poor people are particularly affected by phenomena related to global warming...they have no financial or other resources that enable them to adapt to climate impacts or deal with catastrophic situations, and have little access to social services and protection". For billions of people in the developing world, the truth of his words will resonate with their own experiences.
Dealing with global warming and related environmental problems is fundamentally a moral and ethical issue. Pope Francis urges those who focus on short-term political agendas to step back and consider their broader responsibilities. "We are one human family. There are no political or social borders and barriers that allow us to isolate ourselves, and for that reason there is no space for the globalization of indifference...if you have the courage to do so, [you] will again recognize the dignity that God has given [you] as a person and leave, after [your] passage in this story, a testimony of generous responsibility".
We can only hope (or pray) that those in the Congress who are currently obstructing meaningful action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take this to heart.