The papal encyclical and the Lancet Commission report are reframing the climate issue, putting people at its center.
THE long-anticipated encyclical by Pope Francis to the world on the environment was released mid-June. The Lancet Commission, a distinguished United Kingdom-based health body, the following week released its report on health and climate change. The next day, the White House hosted a summit on the same subject. Will this unprecedented alignment of key official voices — religious, scientific and governmental — change the conversation on ecological destruction and whom it impacts?
Pope Francis has already changed the conversation in the Catholic Church by prioritizing issues of justice and mercy. He holds a unique status today as a moral leader not only of Christians but of all peoples of the world. He has used that moral authority to call for a needed moral conversion about what he considers the interconnected issues of the environment, the poor, humanity, global development and peace.
Health professionals and scientists are also changing the conversation by calling attention to the ways in which environmental destruction, such as climate change, threatens human health and well-being. We feel the effects through more severe storms, risks of infectious diseases, food scarcity and more. There is strong evidence that the world’s poor are among the most vulnerable — a common-sense, but often overlooked, fact that Lancet and the encyclical spotlight. The Lancet report shows that combating climate change is an unprecedented opportunity to advance health, equitable development and sustainability.
Rarely have religion and health science come together so seamlessly to underscore for all that the science of climate change is clear and the need to steward the natural world is both a divine and a public-health opportunity and duty for all. Science and religion are not antagonists in this struggle. They are allies moved to join hands from their different and deepest convictions toward a common commitment about the greatest issue facing the planet.
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What is especially new about this moment is a reframing of the climate issue, putting people at its center. The consistent focus is not on ourselves, but on others — the poor and the most vulnerable. It is a joint call to solidarity with those who most need our efforts because they are the ones who most experience the destructive effects of climate change. We are the ones who can most do what is needed to mitigate those effects causing their suffering. Climate change affects us all. We are called to look beyond ourselves to others, to ensure and protect the human dignity of the most vulnerable out of our own humanity.
We know from our work with many university students that environmental justice is their greatest cause. They believe that there could be no greater purpose than saving the planet. It is their equivalent of the civil-rights cause of an earlier generation of university students. They do not need to be converted to environmental justice — we do.
Justice, however, can remain abstract. Pope Francis insists repeatedly that, while all people deserve justice, all people need mercy. Mercy makes justice practical, brings it to people as they are, to the poor and to the current moment.
For us, the current moment is this unique alignment of world-leading voices seeking to change the conversation on climate change. They are calling for a moral conversion, grounded in science and appealing to our faith and our humanity for justice and mercy and the sake of others. This can be a time that will change the world.