With a puff of white smoke, the world was greeted this week with the announcement of a new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine Cardinal now known as Pope Francis, named after the patron saint of the poor St. Francis of Assisi.
The new pontiff’s role in assisting the world’s disadvantaged will be inextricably linked to the ravages of climate change, the fast-growing global crisis that will hit the rising global impoverished populations hard with increasingly deadly droughts, floods and storms as heat-trapping carbon pollution continues to build in the atmosphere.
Just this week, the United Nations released a searing report about the catastrophic impacts climate change will inflict on the world’s rapidly growing population—predicted to hit 8 billion by 2025. The hardest hit will be the poor as the world’s water and food resources are stretched to potential breaking points in many areas of the globe. Here’s how the Guardian reported on the UN report:
"Environmental threats are among the most grave impediments to lifting human development … The longer action is delayed, the higher the cost will be," warns the report, which builds on the 2011 edition looking at sustainable development.
"Environmental inaction, especially regarding climate change, has the potential to halt or even reverse human development progress. The number of people in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050 unless environmental disasters are averted by co-ordinated global action," said the UN.
For many of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio, a Spanish-speaking Jesuit and a champion of the poor, was a positive sign he would lead the Church on a renewed focus to address income disparities around the world. And the health of the world’s poor is now more than ever connected the environmental health of the planet.
Watch this video of Voces Verdes board member Maria Cardona speaking at the Forward on Climate Rally held in Washington last February.
Here’s how the recently released draft National Climate Assessment—a four-year study of climate change impacts involving hundreds of U.S. scientists and experts—describes the threats we already are experiencing:
Climate change is already affecting human health, infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, energy, the natural environment, and other factors – locally, nationally, and internationally. Climate change interacts with other environmental and societal factors in a variety of ways that either moderate or exacerbate the ultimate impacts. The types and magnitudes of these effects vary across the nation and through time. Several populations – including children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, tribes and other indigenous people – are especially vulnerable to one or more aspects of climate change. There is mounting evidence that the costs to the nation are already high and will increase very substantially in the future, unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are strongly reduced.
Protesters at the Forward on Climate Rally in DC Photo: Melanie Blanding/NRDC
While it’s unclear exactly how the new pontiff will guide the world's Catholics in terms of environmental policy, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Pope Benedict, known as the “green pope,” who warned about the risks of climate change and pushed for environmental reforms, as my NRDC colleague Adrianna Quintero blogged:
Pope Benedict XVI, made great strides in helping bring awareness to climate change and the impacts it will have on the poor and vulnerable, linking climate change to food insecurity and water scarcity. The Vatican also released a report, “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene,” showing the impact humans have had on climate change and appealing "to all nations to develop and implement” solutions.
And as the Christian Science Monitor has reported, Pope Benedict not only supported putting solar panels on the Vatican, he understood the importance of investments in clean energy and efficiency measures that would cut energy demand and in turn reduce carbon emissions. Here's what Pope Benedict wrote in a 2009 encyclical letter:
"The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens...It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy."
That papal environmental philosophy dovetails perfectly with the need for action in the U.S. to cut carbon emissions from the largest polluters; power plants. President Obama has the power to take a bite out of carbon pollution by adopting a flexible state-based plan to boost energy efficiency programs and renewable energy sources, creating jobs and saving consumers money in the process.
Let’s hope that Pope Francis follows in his predecessor's footsteps and adopts an aggressive stance on fighting climate change around the world, a growing scourge on the world’s poor that the UN estimates is killing 1,000 children a day and costing the global economy $1.2 trillion a year. That's a toll that will rise to unfathomable levels if we don’t cut our addition to dirty fuels.
Despite dire warnings from climate scientists and experts around the world, powerful fossil fuel industry interests continue to push dirty energy boondoggles like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Now more than ever we need Church leaders' help to push for clean energy solutions to support a sustainable planet, one that is growing increasingly hostile for billions of inhabitants.
We may well need divine intervention.