Pope Francis and the Paris Opportunity

September 23, 2015 | 5:59 pm
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

As I write this, Washington DC is in a state of excitement at the first visit by Pope Francis to the United States.  For those concerned about the mounting threat of climate change, there is great anticipation about what the Pope will say on this issue when he addresses a joint session of Congress tomorrow, and when he speaks before the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

Pope FrancisThe papal encyclical that Pope Francis released in May, Laudato Si, left no doubt as to how deeply he cares about the impacts that climate change is already having, particularly on the most vulnerable amongst us. And he reiterated that concern in his remarks at this morning’s welcoming ceremony at the White House, saying that “climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation.  When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

Tomorrow morning, tens of thousands of people are expected to pack the National Mall for the rally for Moral Action on Climate Justice, organized by a coalition of faith, social justice, secular and environmental leaders; the goal is to “bring more people into the conversation that Climate Change is a Moral Issue and significantly expand the number of persons who will recognize and take action for climate justice.”  I will be speaking at the rally on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists; here is some of what I plan to say:

Climate change is not just an environmental problem; it is also one of the greatest social, economic, and moral challenges of our time.  No country is immune from its impacts, and no country can meet the challenge alone.  We can’t point fingers and say “your end of the lifeboat is sinking;” rather, we must put aside our differences and come together to address this crisis.  As the world’s largest economy and largest historical emitter of heat-trapping gases, the United States has a special responsibility to provide leadership.

The climate summit in Paris this December offers us the opportunity to meet this challenge, by taking the actions needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.  We need an ambitious agreement that sees all countries committing to do their part, and that sets us on a clear course towards a global economy that is much more energy-efficient and is entirely powered by the sun, wind, and other renewable resources. We must do this in a way that also addresses the crises of economic inequality, poverty, and social exclusion.  At the same time, we must greatly expand support for communities that are already struggling to cope with the impacts of climate change, both in other countries and here at home.

Two months out, there are promising signs that such an agreement is possible.  Hundreds of cities, states, and provinces are making bold action commitments.  Investors are starting to shift their assets away from fossil fuels and into clean energy sources.  People around the world are taking steps to reduce the impacts of their own consumption patterns, and are coming out to rallies like this one to demand action from their political leaders.  And leaders are responding by committing to work for a successful outcome in Paris.

Of course, there are some politicians who still don’t get it, who say that action is too expensive, that other countries won’t join us if we take action, or in some cases, that the threat of climate change is a hoax.  One Member of Congress even told a reporter that when the Pope addresses Congress tomorrow, he hopes that he “emphasizes moral issues, rather than things like global warming.”  Anybody who doesn’t understand that climate change is one of the most profound moral issues we face hasn’t been paying any attention to what Pope Francis has been saying!

We can hope that these advocates of inaction will open their hearts to Pope Francis’s message, will reflect on the kind of world they want to leave to their children and grandchildren, and will change their position. But in the meantime, the rest of us must push ahead to win the change we need to see, both in Paris and here at home.   By your presence here today, you are sending a strong message to our political leaders that the science is clear, the problem is urgent, the solutions are available, and inaction is unacceptable.  Riffing off of President Obama, we are saying: Yes We Can!  Yes We Must!  Yes We Will!