Perhaps one of the biggest climate change stories of 2015 has been Pope Francis’s encyclical, titled Laudato Si. It is a powerful document, tracing the moral and biblical roots of environmental stewardship, recognizing the devastating effects of climate change on the poorest among us, and calling for a radical shift in how we relate to the Earth. That this encyclical came from a leader who chose to adopt the name of Saint Francis — the same saint who talked to birds — should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with religious teachings about caring for God’s creation. Yet many politicians and business leaders vocally doubted the role of a religious leader entering the climate change discussion. Former Florida governor and GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush said, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Oklahoma senator James Inhofe stated, “The pope ought to stay with his job.” Former Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum remarked, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”
What all these statements imply is that climate change is purely a science issue, and therefore non-scientists are getting out of their lane when they comment on it. This could not be any more wrong.
Climate change has never been purely a science issue. We know climate change will affect every single one of us on Earth, and every person that follows us. It has grave consequences for marginalized communities living in geographically vulnerable areas threatened by severe hurricanes and rising sea levels, for ecosystems that have been stressed to the point of extinction due to extraction and pollution, and for human rights as droughts and environmental degradation devastate resources and stoke the fires of armed conflict and refugee crises.
Scientists can tell us how and why climate change is happening. But they cannot — nor should they be expected to — come up with the answers for shifting to a world powered by an alternative to the current toxic approach of extraction that exhausts human and environmental resources to the breaking point. And that’s where the rest of us come in.
The Pope took a bold stance by issuing a clarion call rooted in Catholic theology to demonstrate why Catholics cannot avert their eyes to this issue any longer. In doing this, Pope Francis showed us how we must each find ways to speak with our own communities, using our own communities’ language, cultural knowledge, rituals and practices to address a global issue with ramifications for every person on Earth. Climate change is a multitude of problems, and it requires a multitude of responses. While people might not listen to a scientist talk about carbon emissions scenarios, they might begin to engage with climate change when a friend at work, house of worship, school, or neighborhood group speaks about how climate change affects that community and what can be done about it.
Across the world, people are leading these conversations within their own communities. Students at American historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are holding HBCU Climate Change conferences. In the UK, Muslim Climate Action is a coalition of Muslim organizations working on climate change issues. Gulf South Rising is a coalition of Gulf Coast coast communities organizing grassroots responses to environmental injustices wrought on the Gulf South region. A growing number of medical professionals are signing on to campaigns against carbon emissions. And happily, archivists have joined the group of people working within their own communities with the creation of ProjectARCC.
– Eira Tansey