The Pope on Climate Change, Science, and Morality: Can His Message Change the Conversation?

June 12, 2015 | 1:24 pm
Angela Anderson
Former Contributor

Pope Francis has something important to say about climate change, and deniers who have used religion as their last bastion should take note. In this Pope’s world, science and religion are calling in harmony – and with urgency – for action on climate. The Pope is a leader of many firsts: the first Latin American pontiff, the first Jesuit, likely the first with a chemistry degree, and the first to issue a formal teaching for Catholics around the world that equates climate action with caring for one another. A recent poll indicates he will reach a very receptive audience.

I first learned of the Pope’s pending encyclical on climate change while preparing to make remarks on climate change during the Earth Day service at my church. Questions about faith and science, climate change as a moral issue, and individual responsibility swirled in my mind as I struggled to create a message that would communicate the urgency of sea level rise, global average temperature increase, and the impacts of extreme weather — without triggering the polarization that is often triggered by discussions of this sort, especially in a suburban DC congregation.

I have never felt there was a disconnect between my Christian faith and my work for what scientists have told us about our planet – and neither does Pope Francis, who not only received a technical degree in chemistry, but has also benefitted from a Vatican convening of scientists and social scientists to inform the forthcoming encyclical.

A workshop organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and Religions for Peace on April 28, 2015 concluded with this decisive and urgent statement on climate change. Image:

Climate denial among religious conservatives confuses politics and faith

I came across an April speech by Cardinal Peter K A Turkson previewing the encyclical. In it he explained that the Pope was conscious of this same dynamic when developing the climate statement. The Cardinal reported that “the Holy Father said that one of the challenges he faces in his encyclical on ecology is how to address the scientific debate about climate change and its origins. The Pope knew that the encyclical would have its critics and challengers if it asserted that human causation was scientific fact.”


Speculation on the reaction to the Pope’s teaching on climate change began late last year. This Guardian article from December wonders about U.S. reaction given the existence of climate-doubting politicians and groups like the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which it said claimed to represent “millions of Evangelical Christians” and has previously declared the U.S. environmental movement to be a false religion.

As predicted, climate change foot-draggers and deniers have been gearing up to undermine influence of the encyclical. It is unfortunate that some conservatives, who speak more for an ideology than a religion, have already dismissed the Pope before reading his words. They stand not on scientific consensus but on shaky ground.

Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, did an interview last week and discussed climate denial among Christians at length and pointed out that climate denial doesn’t usually originate with religious leaders: “Where are we Christians getting the idea that the science is fake? Those ideas don’t originate with our pastors or our Christian leaders (although many of them propagate the ideas). It’s the conservative media, whose values and ideology many of us evangelicals agree with and trust, who are telling us it’s not real. There’s nothing in the Bible that says it isn’t.”

She goes on to say that climate denial among religious conservatives confuses politics and faith. “There is nothing in the Bible that says that you can’t be a Christian if you care about creation and what climate change is doing to it. The problem is really not with our faith. The problem is that for many of us, we’ve forgotten what our faith is.”

Sustainability and climate change are not political and economic issues — they are moral issues

News reports indicate that the encyclical will assert that sustainability and climate change are not political and economic issues — they are moral issues. It will point to harm to human beings that result from climate change – from reduced drinking water availability to growing hunger to complete inundation of communities — and sometimes entire countries — by rising seas. The encyclical will also bring a theological lens to the politicized climate conversation, citing scripture that links God’s greatness with the grandeur of the earth; calling for stewardship, and calling out the failure to protect the earth as sacrilegious. And it will reaffirm that the burden of climate change or attempts to deal with climate change should not be borne solely by the poor – those whom Jesus called “the least of these” – but should be shouldered by those to whom the most has been given.

Throughout the Hayhoe interview, she echoed those themes, sliding seamlessly from science to scripture saying, “The Bible says that we humans were given responsibility over “every living thing” on this planet. It talks about how choices have consequences, and how we are called to love others as Christ loved us. All of this is compatible with caring for the creation with which God has entrusted us and, even more, caring for others who are being harmed by our actions or our neglect.”

The Latin title of the encyclical is, “Praise be (Laudato Si’), on the care of our common home” from the Canticle of the Sun. I love this title. It signals to me that caring for each other is a value that supersedes our disagreements and debates. This theme follows from the notion that inflicting harm on the planet is morally wrong, because it inflicts harm on another human being. We should stop inflicting harm on the environment and instead use our energies to help the people most affected by it, who often have the least capacity to cope with it.

Feature image: Jeffrey Bruno/Flickr