Pope Francis’ call to confront global warming is the strongest sign yet of the issue’s urgency.
Many of us have long known that climate change has a moral dimension. The rising seas, the lethal storms, the dying forests and drought-stricken farmland aren’t coincidences or hoaxes.
These are symptoms of a proliferation of greenhouse gases, and if we don’t reverse them, we’ll be beyond sorry. Scientists don’t debate this, unless they’re ideologues or paid skeptics.
Those who fear change, though, have dug in, immobilizing us in the face of real danger. Industries have used the pretense of “debate” as an excuse not to disturb carbon-intensive business models. Nations have been loath to deter growth after a global recession.
The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has been obstructionist to the point of recklessness. And, aside from California and a few others, states largely have concluded there’s nothing they can do, even if they were interested in trying.
Meanwhile, the consequences of environment-related disease and violent weather fall most heavily on the most vulnerable among us. According to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, an estimated 66 million children were affected worldwide between 1990 and 2000 by weather-related disaster. Some 600,000 were killed.
Where is the personal responsibility we tout on so many less urgent issues? Interestingly, that’s how the pope framed his 191-page encyclical, or teaching letter, issued by the Vatican on Thursday, which he described as “an appeal for responsibility.”
The document, which clarifies church doctrine for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, is timed as a preface to the climate change summit later this year in Paris. But as the first encyclical ever devoted solely to the environment, Laudato Si, as it is titled, could have a broader impact.
“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” Francis wrote. “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes.”
We know he’s right, both in science and in spirit, both in the developing world and California. We know there’s a link between the gas guzzlers crowding I-5 and Central Valley children gasping with asthma. We know that First World consumerism is one of the leading generators of Third World pollution.
We also know, as the pope inconveniently points out, that California’s lucrative cap-and-trade system is a compromise, enacted here only because it has been the only way to get industry cooperation.
Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t address that on Thursday, though, as ever, the former seminarian mourned our “deep obsession with markets and material stuff” and challenged business and government leaders to “join together and reverse our accelerating slide into climate disorder.”
Brown has issued that urgent challenge before, without many takers. Maybe in this Laudato Si moment, California finally will have some company in saying, “Amen.”