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The Pope and the Politics of Climate Change
By Rebecca Jackson, Contributor

Climate change has long been a polarizing issue in the United States. With a Presidential election on the horizon, this issue will likely become even more divisive as candidates duke it out for funding and votes. However, the usual lines of demarcation between left-and-right are blurring-thanks, in part, to Pope Francis.


Pope FrancisIn June, the Pope delivered his first solo Encylical, Laudato Si ("Praise Be to You"), aiming to galvanize global efforts to protect our planet. In this elegantly written, strongly-worded paper, he proves himself to be a systems thinker, connecting climate change drivers and outcomes to our economic frameworks.

Most crucially, the Pope warns of the disproportionate suffering that is, and will continue to be, imposed upon the world's most vulnerable if we fail to act as a global community. He implores readers to "hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."

Traditionally, an Encyclical is a Catholic Church teaching addressed to Bishops, Priests, and all Catholic faithful. Laudato Si, however, like Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth"), is addressed to every inhabitant of the planet.

This likely explains why, despite his misgivings about humanity's relationship with technology and the media, Pope Francis shared his message via a formidable "Tweet Storm." One particular Tweet: "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." has been shared more than 30,000 times — the kind of marketing reach many companies can only dream of!

Pope tweets

Reactions to the Encyclical and its accompanying social media frenzy have been mixed. Some on the right have rejected the Pope's systems approach, suggesting that he "stick to theology;" whereas some on the left have been accused of cherry-picking messages by lauding the environmental activism while ignoring consistently Catholic stances on abortion.

Seeing the Encyclical solely through the lens of partisan politics limits our ability to leverage this extraordinary document as an opportunity to open up difficult discussions to forge the necessary, pluralistic, interconnected effort needed if we are to come close to abating the worst effects of climate change.

It's difficult to say what, if any, specific measurable impact the Encyclical will have on environmental and economic policy. Even before Pope Francis stepped so emphatically into the discussion, momentum was gathering as governments began releasing proposals and announcing commitments to reduce emissions, alongside an increasing number of institutions declaring their intention to divest from fossil fuel extraction companies.

Additionally, concerns about overly short-termist markets, extractive capitalism, and the financialization of the economy, have been gaining ground since the recent financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Despite this momentum, we would be wise to heed the Pope's warnings against apathy.

No matter where one stands, there is little doubt that this Encyclical has sparked a broader and deeper conversation by emphasizing connections between climate change, social justice, and the overall financial system. Certainly, the Pope's anticipated appearance before Congress on September 24, 2015 (announced by John Boehner in February) will ensure his presence continues to be felt in the run-up to the Presidential election next year.

At least one thing seems clear; what happens next is not for one person to divine. In the words of UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, "…climate change is a moral issue that requires collective urgent actions. People everywhere share a responsibility to care for and protect our common home, our one and only planet Earth."


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Posted: July 17, 2015