The world is anxiously waiting for the College of Cardinals to select the next Bishop of Rome, especially the planet’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. The faithful have good reason to be anxious: After all, the new pope will have to address a number of polarizing issues within the Catholic Church.
In addition to the challenges of ecclesiastical governance, however, there also exists an opportunity for the next pope to address an issue affecting the entire world community, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike: the urgent threat of climate change.
The destructive impact of climate change has been felt not only in the United States through droughts and floods and sea level rise, but also in communities around the world. The science suggests that its effects will only worsen, intensifying the hardships experienced by the poor and vulnerable. In the midst of this global crisis, the next pope is poised to become a key voice on the issue of climate change by helping the international community find solutions to the climate crisis.
The compulsion for the pope to act on climate change isn’t just based in science. It’s also rooted in theology: Catholic teaching insists that believers put the poor and vulnerable first, and inaction to save the most susceptible is considered immoral. Indeed, it has been 13 years since Pope John Paul II gave his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, saying:
“[A]n adequate solution cannot be found merely in a better management or a more rational use of the earth’s resources, as important as these may be. Rather, we must go to the source of the problem and face in its entirety that profound moral crisis of which the destruction of the environment is only one troubling aspect…
The ecological crisis reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized… I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.”
Pope John Paul II’s words were more than just a symbolic prayer: both he and Pope Benedict XVI used their position and the power of the Vatican to elevate the moral case for action on climate change.
Pope Benedict XVI, for example, has been called the “Green Pope,” and will be remembered for his consistent call for action on climate change and the impact it will have on the poor. He called for the international community to reach an agreement during the Durban United Nations Climate Change Conference, linked climate change to food insecurity on World Food Day in 2011 while also previously connecting climate change to water scarcity in his 2010 World Day of Peace Message.
The Vatican also released a report on climate issues in 2011, commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The report, “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene,” showed the impact humans have had on the retreat of mountain glaciers as a result of climate change – as well as a list of proposed recommendations.
These are great strides in helping bring awareness to climate change and the impacts it will have on the poor and vulnerable. But there is much more to do: The next pope should not only continue to voice concern about this critical issue but also begin working with world leaders to bring about lasting solutions to stabilize the earth’s dangerously precarious climate.
Climate change could claim the lives of tens of millions of people by 2030, a report from DARA International Climate concludes. Climate change already contributes to “400,000 deaths on average each year,” mainly due to “hunger and communicable diseases that affect above all children in developing countries,” while “an estimated 4.5 million deaths each year [are] linked to air pollution, hazardous occupations and cancer.”
The impacts of climate change have already started to ignite conflicts around the world by causing food shortages, driving people to migrate internally or internationally, and consequently exacerbating existing conflicts and political instability. The Center for American Progress’s Climate, Migration, and Security Project examines the intersections of climate change, environmental degradation, migration, and conflicts throughout the world.
Popes are often discussed in terms of legacy: People remember pontiffs who tackle big issues and overcome daunting challenges. The soon to be elected Bishop of Rome has the chance to be remembered for many things, one of which must be his actions on helping the international community establish a long-term energy strategy that ensures energy security, protects human health and the environment.
Matt Kasper is a Special Assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Jack Jenkins is a Writer and Researcher for the Center for American Progress Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.
See also: Vatican on climate: Pray for science