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Photo: Catholic Church England and Wales via Flickr

A Call to Action

Pope Francis says climate change is the overarching environmental challenge of our time — and we have a moral obligation to confront it.

Rhea Suh
Rhea Suh
Jun 17, 2015 · 3 min read

Our sister, Mother Earth, says the pope, “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by the irresponsible use of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

With those words, Pope Francis calls not only on the world’s 2.2 billion Christians but also on all “men and women of goodwill” to act as faithful stewards of the earth’s waters, skies, wildlife, and lands.

In the encyclical he issued from the Vatican on Thursday, the pope makes clear that climate change is the overarching environmental challenge of our time, a widening scourge we have a duty to confront.

The pope isn’t holding out the peril of climate change as an article of faith. Science tells us the bedrock truth about what’s happening to our natural world. Faith picks up where science leaves off, helping to guide our individual and collective response as stewards of all creation. Pope Francis is imploring people of goodwill everywhere to honor our moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of further climate chaos by embracing our ethical duty to act.

And beyond our common charge to safeguard the planet, he writes, we are called on to help the poor.

We’re all paying a high price for rising seas, expanding deserts, blistering heat, withering drought, raging wildfires, floods, storms, and other hallmarks of climate change. Some, though, are bearing a greater burden.

Scores of millions of the world’s poorest people are living on the front lines of climate disaster. All too often, it is the most vulnerable among us — infants and children, expectant mothers, the elderly, the infirm — who suffer first and are hurt the worst from the hazards of climate change.

We have a responsibility, the pontiff tells us, to do better — by the planet and by our fellow human beings.

The former bishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis has a personal commitment to people living in poverty. He has rightly tied the hardships of the global poor to environmental degradation.

“It is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he explained on a January visit to the Philippines, where unusually warm oceans contributed to the 2013 cyclone that killed more than 6,300 people and left 4 million homeless. “I think we have exploited nature too much.”

On that point, there can be no doubt. Our world is telling us every way it knows how that it’s time to cut the fossil-fuel pollution that’s driving climate change.

The dangerous carbon pollution we’ve pumped into the atmosphere by burning oil, gas, and coal has raised the average global temperature by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over little more than the past century.

Last year was the hottest since record-keeping began 135 years ago. The 16 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1997. We know our climate is changing, and we know what’s causing it. The question we haven’t yet answered is the most vital one: What are we going to do about it?

That’s why the papal encyclical is so important. For our convictions to have meaning and purpose, they must shape the way we live. Putting belief into action drives progress. That’s what the pope reminds us this week.

Faith can help us to clarify the choices that impact our lives, cast our options in the light of our values, and illuminate the stakes in the paths that we choose. The pope has put before us one of the most profound spiritual questions of our time: Will we embrace our moral obligation to be responsible stewards of the world that’s been entrusted to our care, or preside over the ruin of the natural systems upon which all life depends?

Our answer will determine whether our children inherit a future that’s redeemed by our commitment to get this right or condemned by our failure to act. It will say much about our willingness to live out the power and purpose of our beliefs. It will be the legacy we leave.

Natural Resources Defense Council

Protecting our land, air, and water since 1970.

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