VATICAN CITY – With a poet’s lyricism, a former chemist’s precision and a pontiff’s moral thunder, Pope Francis recast humanity’s relationship with nature in stark ethical terms, hoping to spur a warming, filthy world to clean up its act “before it’s too late.”
In issuing “Laudato Si,” his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change, the pope on Thursday took an extraordinary approach to an environmental issue often framed in the dry language of science. Francis’ teaching document is a melodic yet radical indictment, depicting a materialistic and wasteful society that is hurting the planet and its poorest people.
He challenges the world to stop pollution, to recycle and carpool and to do without air conditioning – and makes it a moral imperative.
“The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty,” he writes.
The pope’s “marching orders for advocacy,” as the head of the U.S. conference of bishops calls it, comes as the world nears make-or-break time for international climate change negotiations that start late this year in Paris.
“This is a seminal moment in world history because the pope now is the leading global voice on climate change,” said prominent Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written both on the church and environmentalism.
Francis said he hoped his paper would lead both ordinary people in their daily lives and decision-makers at the Paris U.N. climate meetings to a wholesale change of mind and heart, urging all to listen to “both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has made the issue of climate change his top priority since taking the reins of the world body 81/2 years ago, thanked the pope “for taking such a strong stand on the need for urgent global action.”
“As we prepare for global climate negotiations in Paris this December, it is my hope that all world leaders – and all God’s children – will reflect on Pope Francis’s call to come together to care for our common home,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Scientific data released Thursday backed up Francis’ concerns. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released figures showing that last month was the hottest May around the globe in 136 years of global records. NOAA calculated that the first five months of 2015 made up by far the hottest year on record, with very real effects: some 2,200 people have died in India’s heat wave.
While the encyclical drew praise from church, science and government leaders, some politically conservative Catholics criticized its economic analysis, and some U.S. Republican politicians said religion had no place in climate policy. Some in the fossil fuel industry took the unusual tack of citing Francis’ focus on the poor, arguing that his thinking would hurt and not help the disenfranchised.
“No, I’m sorry, it’s a political issue,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.
Scientists who for more than 50 years have been talking about the dangers of global warming say this could break the inertia that has characterized climate negotiations. With their data and computer models, scientists appealed to logic; the pope sought to engage the soul.
“This is exactly what we need,” said Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who as an evangelical Christian has talked about faith and warming. “We need leaders who speak to values, connecting the dots between values and climate change.”
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