It's spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and climate change takes on increasing relevance. What kind of season will this be? At times concerns for the climate even beat out such competitors for attention as sports scores, the latest diet, taxes and what the Dow is doing.
A major battle – war might be the more appropriate word – is going on. Neither side is ready to declare victory. Look hard enough and you may find support for supposing that environmental activists are winning, but then their opponents – climate deniers, they are called – release a new analysis and we go back to square one.
You'll never understand this war until you recognize its wider sweep. It may seem to be about competing conclusions reached by scientists, but deep down it's about wielding power, about political loyalties, economic gain, faith and ethics, mapping, and deciding among competing priorities.
Take politics, for example. In the United States the Democratic Party maintains links with climate activists. Thus the Obama Administration escalated development on clean energy, scaled down the nation's reliance on coal (a major source of greenhouse gases) and stepped up fuel economy for cars, so reducing pollution.
Their record falls far short of what the most concerned activists press for, but it contrasts with that of the Republican Party. Setting forth the Republican platform (August 27, 2012), the G.O.P. stated:
Conservation is a conservative value. As the pioneer of conservation over a century ago, the Republican Party believes in the moral obligation of the people to be good stewards of the God-given natural beauty and resources of our country and bases environmental policy on several common-sense principles. For example, we believe people are the most valuable resource, and human health and safety are the most important measurement of success. A policy protecting these objectives, however, must balance economic development and private property rights in the short run with conservation goals in the long run. Also, public access to public lands for recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting should be permitted on all federal lands.
It would be a mistake to limit the debate to politics. As the Republican statement suggests, the issue has a religious dimension. So where do faith communities stand?
Consider the example of Pope Francis, rapidly becoming a force to be taken seriously in the environmental war (or heating-up debate, call it what you will). In September of this year he is scheduled both to address the UN General Assembly and to convene a world summit of religious leaders on climate change. Far more than the chief administrator of the Roman Catholic Church – no minor responsibility! – he is devoting his energies to what some may consider “none of the church's business.” In a planned encyclical (an authoritative statement on an important question) he will set out the church's teaching on environmental issues. Persons in the know expect the document to make clear the intimate connection between faith (Christian faith, to be sure, but by extension any faith) and the work of caring for creation. Unless I miss my guess, he won't try to strike a “balance” between the “rights of private property” and the environment. He won't tread so carefully among competing points of view that he offends no one. Rather, he will point to the right of every human being – indeed, every living thing, to have clean air and clean water. We're talking about the world God planned for us all, not the limited world of our experience!
Neither the Pope nor the faith communities we know are recent converts to ecological sanity. What is new now is the visibility being provided. For decades churches have understood stewardship to mean using all our resources, beginning with the earth, our home, wisely and well, for the sake of others, not just private gain. They have promoted that goal even against powerful resistance.
Just beneath the surface of what we see, however, there lies another question: call it the question no one is asking. Would Pope Francis join the environmental activists? Or has he already joined? If he were an American, would he vote for Obama and his progressive policies?
Does the very question shock you? Do you see the Pope – and all organized religion – as somehow above the political fray?
If your answer is “yes,” remember that as recently as December 2014 President Obama credited the Pope with being a key figure in ending the long-standing mutual isolation between Cuba and the United States. To those who see the new rapprochement as a purely political decision, ask the direct question: Was the Pope right to get involved? Will he now play a similarly significant role in cultivating a new mindset vis-a-vis the whole planet?
To make the point clear: Pope Francis speaks for and to all Catholics: Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Progressives, in whatever country they may find themselves. More broadly, he speaks for and to all Christians, by whatever label they may be known. Indeed, the call he issues is for all people to come together in a great people's movement that may yet steer Earth toward a better future.
And if, in practical terms, that means supporting a president who has taken a lead in cleaning up the environment, what's so wrong with that?
Would the Pope support Barack Obama? Do they share important goals? Or, if you will, is Obama a secret Catholic? What's your answer?