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28 September 2015

Why is Pope Francis obsessed with climate change?

Why Pope Francis has used the subject of climate change on his visit to the US to reach out.

By Emad Ahmed

Pope Francis concluded his visit to America last week, which included speeches to both Congress and the UN’s General Assembly addressing inequality, poverty and climate change. 

Two years after he took over as leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis is driving home the message which will surely define his papacy: start taking care of the planet.

Is this a religious leader interfering with the political world? And would that necessarily a bad thing? After all, he helped begin the thawing of relations between US and Cuba. 

His second papal encyclical, a form of open letter, was published in May this year to the delight of millions around the world. It detailed his concerns about climate change, and its effects on biodiversity, global resources and poverty.

He seemed to realise this is a topic that allows the church to re-engage with both its followers and non-Catholics, by using it as a bridge that everyone across the world will have to use. He’s successfully sidestepped more contentious issues for the church, such as abortion and birth control, claiming the church was “obsessed” with such subjects. Although the church has always been in favour of confronting the reality of global warming, previous speeches and letters seem to have taken a backseat on these social issues.

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It is agreed that the changing climate will impact developing nations more. With millions of devout Catholics residing in countries such as Argentina, Mexico and the Philippines, it explains why this is the Pope’s most important issue. However, by actively promoting climate change awareness, he is also tackling socio-economic equality, his ultimate mission.  

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By creating a link between this and inequality, Francis is arguing for sustainable forms of global development, and for the greater need for businesses to focus on job creation, not just profits. Therefore, it makes sense for the church to jump into the debate, given it advocates for social equality. 

During his visit, he successfully steered away from the current thorny debates on abortion and gay marriage. That doesn’t mean his intervention in the climate change debate has been welcomed by politicians, or even fellow Catholics. Congressman Paul Gosar, a Catholic and Republican from Arizona, trashed the Pope in an open letter, stating he shouldn’t be interfering with science. Keep in mind that Gosar is a well-known climate-denier and the Pope is a former lab technician.

Challenges remain in Francis’ long battle, as countries and businesses still need to be persuaded to invest and use renewable energy and technology. The upcoming UN climate conference in Paris this November, which he referred to in his speech to the General Assembly, is going to be a major test.

The aim of reaching a viable, realistic global agreement for the first time since the Kyoto Protocol is optimistic, but one which the Pope thinks is possible. We’re going to have to wait and see – but we can’t wait too long.