Pope's message: moral duty to address climate change

Father John S. Rausch, a Glenmary priest living in Stanton, coordinates the Ministry of Appalachian Justice 
Father John S. Rausch, a Glenmary priest living in Stanton, coordinates the Ministry of Appalachian Justice Education.

This past week thousands of people went to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to see Pope Francis. Catholic parishes in our own diocese of Lexington chartered buses and organized carpools to see the pope, receive his blessing and hear his words.

Addressing Congress, Pope Francis touched on numerous themes, but reference to the environment will continue to receive great scrutiny: "In Laudato Si', I call for a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."

In his environmental encyclical, he affirmed, referencing the bishops of Bolivia, that countries that have benefitted the most economically from the enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, "have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused."

Ultimately, we Americans face a moral obligation.

Many people in developing countries may be oblivious to the pope's visit to the U.S. — people in villages of Bangladesh or on small South Pacific islands — yet, his message to the world's wealthiest nation may directly affect them.

About 100 million people worldwide live one meter above sea level. Some 650 million live along coastal areas that could be submerged if global climate change melts the great ice packs and raises the ocean level. Their lives, cultures and livelihoods depend on a stable environment. This is why human activity contributing to climate change is a moral issue.

Pope Francis cited the Golden Rule before Congress: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The basis of Christian morality is interconnectedness. We are our brother's (and sister's) keeper. And, we can't submerge them,

The first defense against this moral responsibility is denial.

Katherine Hayhoe, a climatologist and evangelical Christian at Texas Tech University cites three reasons for the disconnect between believers and the findings of science.

■ "The evidence is not easy to see." With air conditioning and adjustable thermostats everything looks fine. But, recall photos of birds and shorelines caked with oil after the BP spill. Our dependence on oil is easy to see, and our lifestyle demands can display some graphically bad effects.

■ "Confusion is rampant." The fossil fuel industries have adopted the "tobacco strategy" that sows doubt about scientific conclusions, such as whether smoking really does cause cancer. The oil and coal industries maintain that human activity contributing to climate change is not certain.

In reality, the work of 97 percent of peer-reviewed climatologists agree it is. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps the sun's rays and heats the Earth, has risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. Science can measure CO² precisely, and track temperatures.

That science concludes: human activity is a major factor in climate change.

■ "The truth is frightening." To change our lifestyle appears threatening, yet "to redirect our steps," in the words of Pope Francis, may begin with turning off lights to save electricity, or planning trips to use less gas. Developing an awareness that we are interconnected with one another and creation is another major theme of the pope's encyclical on the environment.

The way forward Pope Francis mentioned in his speech before Congress and wrote in his encyclical: "I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home." This dialogue will require putting aside ideologies and polarized thinking. It asks for honesty within and with others.

The dialogue can begin with a walk in nature, especially as the leaves turn and vibrant colors spackle the landscape. It will deepen when we see the homeless and vulnerable as individuals struggling for the same dignified life we enjoy. Eventually, it will avoid scoring points in debates, and nurture that interconnectedness that exposes the moral sentiment allowing us to take responsibility for creation.

Climate change is a moral issue.

And, Pope Francis reminds us, "if we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs."