The oddest criticism of Pope Francis’ lengthy document calling on Catholics and others to take better care of the planet is that the pope should stay out of political matters. Whether the planet is warming and being polluted beyond its capacity to recover is not a political matter but one of humanity.
The pope’s thoughtful entry into the discourse is a welcome — and needed — respite from the mindless political debate in the U.S. that is more about denial than solutions. As Pope Francis warns, such denial and its accompanying inaction, is turning the planet into “immense pile of filth.”
“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, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world … we need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences,” he said in the nearly 200-page document.
It is a strong rebuke to those who deny climate change and its consequences, including many U.S. lawmakers.
Turning its back on science, the U.S. Senate in January voted 50-49 on a measure that would have stated that climate change is real and is caused by humans. The measure needed 60 votes for passage. Sen. Susan Collins was one of only five Republican senators to support the measure. Sen. Angus King supported it as well.
“The hoax is there are some people so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change the climate,” Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, said at that time. “Man can’t change the climate.”
It is not arrogant but rational and responsible to understand that man is changing the climate — for the worse. Surface temperatures are rising with 10 of the hottest years on record since 1880 occurring in the last 12 years. Glaciers and sea ice are melting with the rate of sea level rise over the last decade double that of the previous century. Extreme weather events are more common and more severe.
Why? For 650,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had not been above 300 parts per million. Since 1950, it has continually risen — at a pace unseen in the previous hundreds of thousands of years — reaching 400 parts per million in 2014. Heat-trapping carbon dioxide is released from the burning of fossil fuels — to power vehicles, generate electricity and manufacture goods — and burning and clearing forests to plant crops and build homes. Eighty-two percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are the result of human activity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Beyond the denial, Pope Francis, who has built his tenure as pope around social justice, was critical of the notion that markets and money could solve all problems, including climate change.
“Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,” he wrote in the encyclical.
King, a member of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, set the right priorities in his response to the encyclical.
“We have an obligation to do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” he said on the floor of the Senate earlier this month. But, he added, “I realize that we will have differences about how to solve this problem. We’ll have differences about the exact dimensions of it. We’ll have differences about what the resolution should be and the technology that we should use and how we should get there and transition and all of those kinds of things.”
That’s where the focus of debate must be: On what steps — through technology, regulation, incentives and mechanisms we haven’t even thought of — must be taken to reduce, and perhaps reverse, the damage we are doing to the planet.