Can Pope Francis Help the Climate Change Cause? - Pacific Standard

Can Pope Francis Help the Climate Change Cause?

Pope Francis' new climate change document could be a major boon to environmentalists.
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Pope Francis in Rome, Italy. (Photo: Iacopo Guidi/Shutterstock)

Pope Francis in Rome, Italy. (Photo: Iacopo Guidi/Shutterstock)

Earlier today, a climate change document from Pope Francis was leaked by the Italian magazine L’Espresso. The document, which is essentially a call to environmental arms for religious believers (who hold considerable sway over national leaders in the United States), will likely shape both domestic and international climate change policy.

While political affiliation remains the most important predictor of environmental stance, research shows that religiosity is linked to lower levels of climate concern. (Evangelical religions that promote biblical literalism rank as the least worried about humanity's effect on the planet.) Pope Francis' document, the first such teaching letter on climate change, is expected to echo and reinforce the sentiments from a statement released by a Vatican climate change meeting at the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences earlier this year, which acknowledged climate change as a real threat to humanity, and called on humanity to better protect the environment. The Vatican's statement and the Pope's forthcoming letter mark a shift in the climate debate, from a scientific issue to a moral one. Basically, the Vatican is attempting to utilize our ability to feel empathetic toward our fellow human beings, and extend that to the environment. The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney explains:

The Vatican, if the signs are to be believed, may blast this emotional channel wide open. Thus, the recent Vatican conference statement noted, "The poor and excluded face dire threats from climate disruptions, including the increased frequency of droughts, extreme storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels." So it appears that a key part of the pope’s moral message may be that we must care for the environment because the very vulnerable depend on its sustainability and stability — for instance, how people living in low-lying areas will be exposed to greater flood risks in a future of rising seas and, maybe, stronger storms.

While the document is the first encyclical to address climate change from a moral perspective, the pope is not the first religious leader to promote environmentalism. A January 2008 paper from the Communicating Climate Change: Discourses, Mediations and Perceptions conference looked at the history of religious groups' appeals for more environmentally friendly policies. Since the late 1990s, the paper found, leaders across multiple religious convictions have issued calls for action on climate change, namely by framing the environmental issue as an ethical one: focusing on environmental stewardship, the impact on future generations, and the fallout for the poor.

Examples of religious opinions on climate change from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington Association of Churches, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, and others. (Credit: Wardekker et al.)

Examples of religious opinions on climate change from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington Association of Churches, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, and others. (Credit: Wardekker et al.)

Scientists, it seems, are optimistic that the pope’s letter will have a more significant impact on public opinion and policy changes. "The encyclical is going to go out to over 1 billion Catholics—that's a way of getting a message across to a segment of society that the scientific community could never do," the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Jeff Kiehl told USA Today. "I mean it's just unbelievable."

If you speak Italian, you can check out the full draft of the encyclical here. We have it on good authority that the prose is lovely.

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