For many Tea Party leaders and their representatives in Congress, it is an "article of faith" that the Earth was given to humans by God for their exploitation and dominion. Many have used this distorted theology to support destructive mining and drilling projects, and to pass legislation attempting to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate planet-warming carbon pollution. Conservative members of Congress would rather the federal government subsidize oil companies than invest in clean energy technology.
But such reckless disregard for the Earth, its people, and natural resources is being challenged by a broad base of faith leaders who point to the many passages in the Bible that call for humans to be caretakers and good stewards of the planet. We can now add to their voices those of a working group of scientists appointed by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a nonsectarian organization presided over by Werner Arber, a Nobel laureate and a Protestant. The academy has just issued a report that declares, without qualification and with utmost urgency, that global climate change is occurring, that humans bear responsibility for it, and that it is our gravest moral imperative to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible.
The report focuses on the causes and implications of retreating mountain glaciers and other ice forms because their melting is a key indicator of global warming. The report says these developments provide "some of the clearest evidence we have for a change in the climate system." The report's authors consist of "glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers, and lawyers." The authors document the quickened pace of melting glaciers, ice, and snow across the globe, and the potential drastic consequences for human populations.
They recommend three main actions: "reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay … reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants … [and] prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate."
While the report is significant in its acknowledgment of climate change and insistence on the need for the global community to take responsibility, it is hardly surprising that Catholic leadership commissioned and supported these findings. Pope Benedict XVI has been an ardent supporter for many years of recognizing the truth of climate change and the collective responsibility to reduce carbon emissions and preserve clean air and clean water. In fact, he has been dubbed the "Green Pope" in diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks.
And in a true example of "lived faith," the pope and his leadership spearheaded renewable energy projects right in Vatican City. In 2008 the Vatican began installing 2,400 solar panels atop the pope's audience hall, which prevents 230 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted annually. The Vatican even flirted with the idea of going completely carbon neutral by reforesting degraded land in Hungary to offset their emissions, though critics assailed the plan for its focus on offsets over efficiency improvements.
In the new pope's first social encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," he proclaimed there is a "covenant" between humans and the environment, and "responsibility is a global one, for it is concerned not just with energy but with the whole of creation, which must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources." He highlighted in particular the responsibility of wealthy developed nations to take the lead on these efforts.
The pope's encyclical in tandem with the working group's report are not meant to scare people. Rather, they are meant to confirm, once and for all, that people need to take climate change seriously, that it is no longer a matter of legitimate debate. The church's strong moral voice shows the urgency of the issue and should persuade conservatives who oppose action to protect God's creation that if they listen to one of the leading lights of the Christian faith on other issues, they should pay attention on this one as well.
Marta Cook is a Research Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and the Progressive Studies Program.