Photograph by Tony Gentile, Reuters
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Pope Francis gestures as he arrives for a general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican. The pope, who chose the name of the patron saint of animals and ecology, has preached against environmental degradation at least since he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Photograph by Tony Gentile, Reuters

Pope Francis Will Be a Powerful Voice on Climate Change

The forceful encyclical, reflecting the pontiff’s spiritual and personal views, aims to influence key world decisions on greenhouse gases.

The first-ever papal encyclical on the environment, though widely anticipated and foreshadowed by earlier Vatican communiqués, still landed with elemental force. The environmental treatise is an emotionally charged, at times scathing look at how humankind has forsaken its stewardship of the earth in favor of a “throwaway culture.” Yet again, Pope Francis has made the most of his bully pulpit.

The pontiff’s forceful language suggests he intends to launch an urgent campaign to press world leaders to attack global warming, possibly including an address to a U.S. Congress that is largely under the sway of climate change skeptics. His immense popularity, the vast goodwill he has inspired and his penchant for bracingly simple, straightforward statements about his beliefs will make him a powerful voice.

That Francis would weigh in with such unsparing terminology should surprise no one. In a speech earlier this year widely viewed as a preview of the encyclical, Cardinal Peter Turkson made it abundantly clear that Francis had every intention of influencing global debate over the environment. “The timing of the encyclical is significant,” said Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, which has served as the Vatican’s unofficial in-house think tank on environmental issues. He noted this year’s critical environmental summits, including the U.N. conference in Paris that seeks to craft a binding agreement.

What is surprising is how emphatically the pope ties human activity to global warming. Turkson’s speech this past spring argued that humans have an obligation to care for the planet regardless of what the science may say about their culpability, in effect sidestepping the issue. But Francis does not, writing that “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”

As Turkson pointed out to me, the pope’s appropriation of the name St. Francis of Assisi immediately “revealed his interest in ecology.” The encyclical’s title, “Laudato Si” (an Umbrian phrase meaning “be praised”), is lifted from the famous poetic homage to nature written nearly 800 years ago by “the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology,” according to the document. Like his namesake, the encyclical’s author sees man’s relationship to God’s creations as an ongoing, inseparable bond. But, Francis writes in “Laudato Si,” “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.”

WATCH: This member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has little patience for people who deny that global climate change is happening. 

Little is known about how or when the pope developed his interest in St. Francis or the environment, but it was evident by the time he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he grew up. The former Jorge Bergoglio chaired a committee of Latin American bishops in 2007 that produced a report sharply criticizing the extractive industries for their role in degrading the Amazon rain forests.

Upon returning to his native continent in 2013, Pope Francis told Latin American bishops that the protection of the Amazon Basin represented a “litmus test for church and society in Brazil.” And last year during a speech in the Italian region of Molise, he lamented, “When I look at America, also my own homeland, so many forests, all cut, that have all become land … that can no longer give life.”  

In other words, the environment is a matter that the pope takes not only spiritually, but personally. Perhaps this is why, as Turkson told me, “The way he’s able to articulate [these issues] has made everyone sit up and take notice.”

Recent surveys indicate that Catholics largely agree that the planet is getting warmer, although still less than half see humans as the primary cause. Even more significantly, if less well known, is the growing concern among the church’s leaders around the world that climate change has already reached crisis proportions. As Turkson said to me, “We’ve had bishops from the Pacific islands tell us that the land they used to plant on is now underwater.”

Ironically, the one body least likely to regard “Laudato Si” as controversial is the Vatican, whose traditionalists have otherwise abided Francis with noticeable discomfort. As the encyclical takes pains to outline, he is hardly the first “green” pope: Most recently his conservative predecessor Benedict was just as explicit in saying that climate change was “caused primarily by the unsustainable way of life of industrialized countries.”

Though the purpose of a papal encyclical is to offer moral guidance to Catholic clergy, the intended audience for “Laudato Si” manifestly extends to elected leaders, corporate executives, the scientific community and the media.

Already taking notice, and umbrage, are conservative leaders in the U.S. who have previously indicated their preference that the pope steer clear of hot-button issues such as climate change. As Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum—a devout Catholic and self-described “huge fan” of Francis—recently put it, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”

But since the pope has framed the environment as both a theological and moral issue, he is effectively challenging those like Santorum who otherwise claim to support him to reappraise their thinking on the issue.

Because of this, House Speaker John Boehner, another practicing Catholic, may live to regret inviting Francis to address Congress on September 24, which will make him the first pope ever to have done so. His Republican caucus includes numerous climate change skeptics, and he has himself been evasive on the topic.

Other political leaders have learned the hard way that the pope does not use such occasions to offer niceties. In 2004, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner attended the annual national mass known as Te Deum, during which the archbishop of Buenos Aires traditionally speaks. Taking the podium, Jorge Bergoglio proceeded to assail the government for its mediocrity and decadence. Kirchner stopped attending the event after that. Then as now, however, Francis would have his say.

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