Photo credit: James Balog

Photo credit: James Balog

“Our earth speaks to us and we must listen if we want to survive.” – Pope Benedict XVI

One signal from the Earth seems increasingly clear: Emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting the global climate. The Vatican also is clarifying its position on climate change: It’s real and humans have a moral responsibility to act.

The Catholic Church accepts the scientific consensus that the evidence for global warming is unequivocal, principally caused by humans, and that inaction carries great risks, said the Vatican’s representative to the September UN summit on climate change. In the last three years, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has issued two reports affirming the reality of man-made climate change and recommending action. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2001) described climate change as a serious problem that requires human action motivated by the virtue of prudence.

Climate change raises ethical and moral questions because it affects all people, particularly the poorest, who are most exposed to its effects, Cardinal Pietro Parolin testified to the recent UN summit on climate change. All people have a responsibility to protect creation for the common good of people across the globe and for future generations.

Since his inauguration, Pope Francis has consistently emphasized the importance of “protecting the environment,” which he said, “all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.”

The church has a special role to play in social action to address climate change. Scientific, technological, economic and political entities fail to adequately spur action because they don’t address the ethical reasons for action. In recent decades, globalization has resulted in a dawning awareness of the interdependence of the global community. The growth of ecological understanding has shown the interconnection between humans and all parts of the natural world.

Ethics brings in the principles of justice and equity, of care for others outside our immediate families. An ethical approach to climate change also challenges the Western materialistic lifestyle.

Pope Francis talks frequently about the evils of a “throwaway culture” and the “globalization of indifference.” In the modern throwaway culture, the idolatry of profit, money and consumerism lays waste to both the natural world and to people’s lives, especially the young, the elderly and people in developing countries.

Cardinal Parolin said that market forces, devoid of ethics, cannot solve the interrelated crises of poverty and the exclusion of most people from opportunity and treatment with human dignity. Questions of human dignity and values cannot be reduced to technical problems.

Confronting global warming will involve not only a global political effort but also a fundamental change in lifestyles and models of development, Parolin said. We must relearn to value people above things.  We must rediscover the value of the common good in shaping economic policies and build a future for the entire human family.

Pope Francis is said to be finalizing an encyclical on the environment that is expected to more thoroughly address climate change. In a homily in May, the pope urged people to nurture and safeguard creation as God’s greatest gift to us. Because while God always forgives, creation never forgives and – he warned – if we destroy creation, in the end it will destroy us.