By William Snape He’s the world’s most powerful climate activist. And when it comes to protecting our planet’s poorest people and fragile web of life from global warming, Pope Francis does not seem willing to accept denial or half measures.
"Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most,” the pope wrote in his landmark encyclical on the environment earlier this year.
That’s why the pope’s visit to America this week has the potential to utterly transform our national debate over climate change.
I’ve been around D.C. a long time. I’ve been to what seems like thousands of hearings and legislative debates on climate change. And I’ve been disturbed to see one of the most dangerous problems on Earth become mere fodder for political theater.
We seem caught between oil industry-financed politicians who think a snowball somehow refutes decades of scientific research and a president who warns us about climate change and then green-lights Arctic drilling.
But having the pope in town changes the atmosphere. When Pope Francis talks, people listen. And the pope is telling President Barack Obama and other leaders that only bolder action can prevent a climate catastrophe.
This is a man who has more popularity than any pop star I can think of. And Pope Francis’ popularity is coupled with humble sincerity and profound moral authority.
But what truly makes the pope powerful is his clear-eyed vision of the climate threat. He doesn’t see global warming as an “issue” or a “problem.” He recognizes that it’s a clear and present danger caused by human irresponsibility. And as oceans rise and droughts intensify, he knows that the fates of millions of people hang in the balance.
The pope’s activism has already ratcheted up pressure on Obama and other world leaders to take big steps to fight global warming ahead of December’s United Nations climate talks in Paris.
But that pressure will only grow as Francis tours the White House and addresses a joint session of Congress.
While miracles happen, perhaps not even the pope can hope to convince the worst climate deniers in Congress to see the light. But his very presence can — and likely will — push the Obama administration to recognize that much more can be done.
Can Obama shake the pope’s hand without feeling a guilty twist in his gut over letting Shell drill for oil in the Arctic? Can his top officials hear the pope speak about the climate refugees driven from their homes by drought without reconsidering their plans to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling?
Guilt is worthless by itself. But if the president changes course and begins to tackle the dangerously extreme fossil fuel extraction that has become so common in our country, he has a tremendous opportunity to protect our climate.
Ending new fossil fuel leasing on public lands and offshore areas controlled by the U.S. government, for example, would keep up to 450 billion tons of greenhouse gases from polluting the atmosphere, according to a recent EcoShift analysis prepared for my organization.
Few politicians easily embrace such bold action, of course. But with gentle yet irresistible moral force, Pope Francis seems to be pushing us all to be braver, stronger, and more compassionate in the face of the climate threat.
With his clear vision and profoundly sincere call to action, the pope just might move Obama and even some Congressional Republicans to take the bold steps needed to protect our common home — and the world’s most vulnerable people — from this terrifying threat.
William Snape III is senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity.