WITH HIS recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis has brought his message of social equality, concern for the marginalized, the perils of unbridled capitalism, and greater responsibility for climate change to, arguably, the nation that most needs to hear it.
That statement may sound unfair. US President Barack Obama has done more than any other American chief executive in history to harness the powers of his office not only to back the scientific consensus on climate change (“Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous,” he tweeted in May 2013) but also to try to pass laws and push for more urgent action on reducing carbon emissions. He has been consistent in his message and blunt in his language; in a recent speech on a visit to Alaska to highlight the fragility and changing conditions of the environment in the Arctic, he said that unless quick action is done to reverse the damage, “we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: submerged countries, abandoned cities, fields no longer growing.”
It’s a theme that dovetails with the unequivocal support the man from the Vatican has given the campaign for a greener, more sustainable use of the environment. Like Obama, Pope Francis has ditched the fudged, generalized language and has come out full-throttle warning about climate change and calling for responsible solutions and measures in response—to the consternation of many conservatives in the Catholic Church, as well as politicians and industrialists invested in big business, who think it’s unseemly for a pope to be dabbling in a discussion best left to scientists and policymakers.
With his groundbreaking encyclical “Laudato Si,” the Pope has firmly put himself on the side of the environmentally-minded. Climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” he said, framing the issue as a moral imperative that affects the lives of billions of people, especially the poor who will be at the forefront of any of its wrenching impacts.
Why is it important to bring this message to the United States? Because, for all of Obama’s exertions and all other related factors (the growing use of natural gas in place of oil, for instance) which have, according to studies, pushed the country’s carbon emissions to fall to their lowest levels since 2006, the fact remains: the United States is one of the two countries in the world—the other being China—that have the highest carbon dioxide emissions, and thus the greatest responsibility to curb their use.
Also, it remains the most profligate nation in terms of world resource consumption. “With less than 5 percent of world population, the US uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper,” said Dave Tilford of the Sierra Club in a report quoted by Scientific American magazine. Put another way, “Americans account for only 5 percent of the world’s population but create half of the globe’s solid waste,” said Scientific American.
The surface prosperity of the United States carries other dark undertones. As the bastion of capitalism, it has promoted the kind of heedless pursuit of wealth that has led to disastrous effects in the market—from the rout of the great banks and the resulting economic recession that left millions of people out of work and homeless, to whole nations enslaved to global debt and punishing economic downturns, helpless against the machinations of much wealthier and more powerful capitalist countries.
Pope Francis’ statements on the dangers of “unfettered capitalism,” his support for a humane immigration policy (especially in light of the thorny issues affecting the United States’ Latino population), and his warnings on climate change appear to be welcomed more warmly in other countries than in the United States, where an entrenched, well-funded conservative base led by the Republican party is on record as opposing many of the Pope’s pronouncements, some even labeling him a “leftist” and a “Marxist.”
But that is why his bringing the message to the American people directly, reminding them of their country’s obligations to the world—whether they like to hear it or not—is another bold, welcome effort by this most straightforward of popes.