The Greener Pope

Francis is about to put climate change front and center on his papal agenda. But can his Holiness heal the political divide?


Earlier this month, before a modest audience at a Catholic university in Ireland, Cardinal Peter Turkson delivered a lengthy address on the importance of caring for the environment, which he described as inseparable from caring for the poor. This will be, Turkson told the students, a “critical year for humanity,” culminating in the international conference on climate change in December. “Compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change,” Turkson said, “we are called to care for humanity and to respect the grammar of nature as virtues in their own right.”

Vatican-watchers have plenty to feast on these days, but Turkson’s words still caused a stir, because they offer a window onto the Pope’s plans to urge action on climate change. A native of Ghana, Turkson was a favorite for the papacy when Benedict stepped down in 2013, and now he presides over the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. But what really matters is this: Turkson has played a crucial role in drafting a major environmental document, which will pay special attention to climate change, that Pope Francis plans to publish this summer. The document, known as an encyclical, underwent a final review at the end of March, and will soon be translated and made public. So Turkson’s 50-minute address, which constantly cited the Pope’s views, serves as a curtain-raiser, pointing toward Francis’s intention to focus on the links between poverty and the environment as he strides into the climate wars. “The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related,” Turkson said, “and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.”

The Pope’s decision to publish an encyclical on ecology is a godsend, so to speak, for environmentalists, and a headache for conservative politicians who elevate the economy above climate action. Encyclicals are philosophical documents — letters, by tradition — disseminated to church officials and the public. They tend to be dozens of pages long and are normally about spiritual matters. Pope Benedict published three over his eight-year papacy, about charity, hope, and Christian love. This will be Francis’s first full encyclical. (He also finished up another encyclical by Benedict on the virtue of faith.) That he has zeroed in on the theme of “human ecology” — a topic that’s a bit more earthly than usual — after only two years of his papacy delivers a clear signal about his priorities.

The church has weighed in on environmental issues before, of course. In 2011, Benedict, sometimes dubbed the “green pope,” called for a global agreement on the “worrisome and complex” problem of climate change. Pope Francis has recently been honing his climate sound bites. “I don’t know if [human activity] is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he said in January, while on an Asia trip. He has talked climate change with the King of Tonga and expressed concern that the Philippines, one of the nations he visited in January, was “likely to be seriously affected by climate change.”

Cardinal Turkson’s address connects the need to preserve the environment to Biblical teachings. He highlights the second chapter of Genesis, in which man, newly formed from dust, is deposited in the Garden of Eden to “till it and keep it.” That, Turkson amplified, meant that even as humans draw from the earth’s bounty, we should also “care for the earth in a way that ensures its continued fruitfulness for future generations.” We seem to have been doing too much tilling and not enough keeping, in other words. Turkson also made a moral case for better stewardship of the earth. “As Saint John Paul II put it, we require an ‘ecological conversion,’ a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor and to the priorities of the global economy,” he said.

But Turkson — and ultimately the Pope — may sidestep the politically polarizing question of climate science, ducking a debate that is mired in mudslinging and doesn’t serve their ultimate purpose of spurring action to help the planet. Francis has said that man may not be the only cause of climate change — something no scientist would dispute — but that man has clearly overexploited the earth, a circumstance that needs to change. Francis has wrestled with questions about climate science, Turkson said: “In an aeroplane interview while returning from Korea last August, the Holy Father said that one of the challenges he faces in his encyclical on ecology is how to address the scientific debate about climate change and its origins.” He then mused: “Is it the outcome of cyclical processes of nature, of human activities (anthropogenic), or perhaps both? What is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer.” In other words, the Pope is seeking the common ground, and to move the discussion along to action.

By dodging the political debate over climate science that has riven some nations, including the United States, Francis’s address will reach over the heads of politicians and speak directly to the masses. Just as the Pope has established a reputation for accessibility, his encyclical is likely to be more readable than most. Another long piece by Francis, on the joy of the Gospel, is the “first Vatican document I’ve ever seen that uses the word sourpusses in it,” said Michael Budde, chair of the department of Catholic studies at DePaul University. Francis’s audience, of course, is enormous — 1.2 billion Catholics, many of them in the developing world. His elevation of this topic may not only drive momentum toward an agreement in Paris, but also provide grassroots encouragement to Catholics who are already trying to help others in harmony with the earth, said Budde. It may also, Budde said, spark an uncomfortable discussion about the link between capitalism and climate change — for, undoubtedly, fast-growing, successful economies are generating far more greenhouse gases than poor nations, which will still suffer the climate effects.

These are important subjects, and if they engage world leaders as well as the masses, all the better. Many leaders who are, or could be, vital to working on climate change are Catholic. One of these is Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, who has praised coal as the “the foundation of our prosperity” for the foreseeable future and helped repeal Australia’s carbon-tax scheme. Another is Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s increasingly unpopular leader, who could perhaps rally to the Pope’s agenda in a face-saving move, especially in light of the massive drought that is draining Sao Paulo of water.

In the United States, the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases, the response to the ecological encyclical is likely to cleave along the fault lines that already exist over Pope Francis, said Budde. The Pope’s position on climate is yet another reason for the left to embrace Francis, who has softened the church’s line on gays and helped forge an agreement on Cuba. The right, and the moneyed industrial interests that align with it, will inevitably fight back. “While we certainly respect the views of the Pope, we too believe we’re on the side of angels as we consider the plight of billions of people around the globe who are living without electrification and suffering though untold poverty and disease as a result,” Laura Sheehan, senior vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal-industry group, told Bloomberg BNA recently. Stephen Moore, chief economist for the Heritage Foundation, had harsher words. “Pope Francis — and I say this as a Catholic — is a complete disaster when it comes to his policy pronouncements,” he wrote in January. “On the economy, and now on the environment, the pope has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.”

Those tensions will likely come to a head in September, when the Pope visits the United States. As well as addressing the United Nations and meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, Francis will address Congress at the invitation of Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic who has bashed the Obama administration’s climate agenda for killing American jobs. Almost certainly, Francis will use these the political pulpit to urge climate action, while, one imagines, Boehner watches stony faced behind him. Francis’ reception will be far gentler than that of Obama, who has raised climate change in his Congressional addresses.

But the Pope’s true mission is to bring hope and solutions to the world, on an issue that has so far defied meaningful agreement. He has identified a problem of spiritual concern; as Cardinal Turkson put it, the Pope has seen the “ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little.” If Francis can soften the tone of the debate over climate science, and nudge the world toward action — toward keeping the earth rather than thoughtlessly tilling it — then that would be the shape of victory.


Correction, April 1, 2015: Pope Francis’s first full encyclical will be on ecology. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that this would be his second one. His earlier piece on the joy of the Gospel was an apostolic exhortation, not an encyclical.

About the Author

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush. @kategalbraith

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush. @kategalbraith

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