The Pope’s courage on climate is a game-changer


One of the most frustrating things about the debate over fossil fuels and climate change is that news items that once might have been perceived as catastrophic are now viewed as ho-hum. I’m sure to some people, the constant news reports about the world breaking temperature records for particular months or for entire years, or headlines about the melting of polar ice caps or heat waves over Antarctica, begin to sound like a broken record. But we should hold on to our capacity to be alarmed, and pay more attention to stories such as this one which came out this week:

NOAA’s latest monthly report on global temperatures confirms that we are headed toward a record-smashing year. Here are some of the new records for “combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces” that NOAA reports were just broken:

  • Hottest “May in the 136-year period of record, at 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average of 14.8°C (58.6°F), surpassing the previous record set just one year ago by 0.08°C (0.14°F).”
  • Hottest March–May (boreal spring) on record, “at 0.85°C (1.53°F) above the 20th century average of 13.7°C (56.7°F), surpassing the previous record warmth of March–May 2010 by 0.04°C (0.07°F). “
  • Hottest January-May on record by far “at 0.85°C (1.53°F) above the 20th century average, surpassing the previous record set in 2010 by 0.09°C (0.16°F).”

The problem is that people have become locked into their familiar patterns. While 99 percent of the world’s climate scientists may be certain that manmade carbon pollution is creating a global warming crisis for the planet, too many Americans get their information from Big Oil-friendly places like Fox News, talk radio, or right-wing politicians who are determined to highlight the other 1 percent. At least in this country, the debate about climate change is going nowhere without a paradigm change — thanks to rampant denial.

Enter Pope Francis. The spiritual leader of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics commands enormous moral authority. He’s earned that in just his short time at the Vatican — as a spokesman for human decency, greater respect for diverse liferstyles, ending unnecessary war and conflict, and new approaches to the problems of poverty and inequality. To Pope Francis, treating climate change seriously and making fundamental changes in the way we live isn’t just a matter of respecting science — although that’s important — but is part of a holistic, and this holier, worldview. In his landmark paper, or encyclical, on the environment released this week, Francis writes: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

ThinkProgress published a piece this week suggesting that Francis’ rallying cry could have an impact similar to Winston Churchill’s leadership in World War II:

Our current way of life is unsustainable, and, according to a Times translation, the pope says bluntly: “It has become urgent and compelling to develop policies so that in the coming years the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases is reduced drastically, for instance by replacing fossil fuels and by developing renewable energy sources.”

Precisely. Either we stay below 2°C total warming or the entire world (and especially the world’s poor) faces multiple, irreversible catastrophes. The science could not be clearer on this — nor could the leading climate experts (as detailed in the conclusions to the “structured expert dialogue” from May). Fortunately, we know that we can avoid the worst of the irreparable harms at an astonishingly low net cost while bringing poor countries out of poverty in the only sustainable way possible.

Pope Francis is not some vigilante, like the Caped Crusader. And he does not have a country to command, as Churchill ultimately did. But he does have unique moral authority and an enormous number of followers to mobilize around the transcendent moral issue of our time. That makes him a potential game changer in the way Churchill was.

Indeed, watching the scattered and confused reactions of some of the Republican candidates for president this week has convinced me that the pope is changing this conversation, for good. Over the last generation, our broken political system — awash in corporate money — has shown itself to be not up to the task of fighting Big Oil on any issue, including global warming. The new direction from Pope Francis is more than a breath of fresh air. It could just save the planet.

Read more about the world’s record-setting temperatures this spring:

Check out ThinkProgress’ analysis of Pope Francis’ bold new stance on climate change and the church:

I call for a bolder approach to climate change and de-emphasizing fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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