Editorial: Climate Change Lesson from Pope Francis

July 13, 2015
Editorial: Climate Change Lesson from Pope Francis

Anti-hunger organization Oxfam called for urgent action against climate change. Pope Francis has said that climate change hits the world’s poor the hardest.

Recently I was at a social gathering when a friend of a friend began talking about the inconvenience of not having a garbage disposal at the kitchen sink. She was from California, and she claimed enthusiastically that her mother threw away anything down the drain.

In a social setting, I try to act with etiquette first and foremost. I didn’t know this person closely enough to give my own opinion on the matter openly; and honestly, I already have a reputation for being “intense” that didn’t necessarily need to be reinforced over the manner in which one disposes food waste. Yet I was also inwardly distressed because food disposal is a pet cause of mine: I have been composting food waste for almost 4 years now, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, which is similar to how I feel about veganism.

Solid food waste doesn’t simply disappear when ground down by the garbage disposal: it is eventually collected by the wasterwater treatment plant and added to landfills, and a lot of water is wasted in order to send it down the pipes. Unbelievably, 19% of California’s electricity and 32% of its natural gas are used to pump water and wastewater. The other option of throwing away solid waste in plastic bags, and sending them to landfills, sends up immense amount of methane into the atmosphere as the biomass decomposes, thus contributing to global warming. So the most eco-friendly option is clearly to practice composting, and despite the myth that it’s difficult to practice in the city, I’ve found that it’s incredibly easy to do in every type of living situation.

But this episode became an opportunity to reflect on my personal beliefs and our society’s values on what it means to be a good person. Time and time again, I’ve had opportunities to inform others on issues I feel strongly about, but chose not to, out of respect for their own way of living–their personal freedom. So when I have conversations with people who are not clearly on the same page as I am on topics such as environment, gender inequality, poverty, and climate change, I tend to listen more than talk. Sometimes, I encounter utter indifference or mild sympathy (“so sad that polar bears are dying…”), but more often, it’s well-meaning though vague:

“I will make a lot of money and become highly successful and influential; and at that point, when I have power to effect change, I will do good for the world.”

In these attitudes (indifference, mild sympathy, or delayed assumption of responsibility), there is the underlying belief that as private individuals we don’t have much power, and therefore no true responsibility. So even as people are quick to ridicule politicians who still deny climate change, they don’t take action to actually help the environment in their own lives. Eat vegan? Sounds healthy, but I could never give up cheese. Compost? That’s crazy. I’ll just make a lot of money and donate millions of dollars down the road, that’s what will actually make a difference. 

But in the example of Pope Francis, we can see how this model of “selfish-until-a-public-figure” is morally invalid. Pope Francis may at first appear to be the case of an influential figure making sweeping changes. But consider his life before papacy: as a priest, he wasn’t thinking that he will do XYZ to improve the world once he becomes Pope, so he can and should do anything to first get there. His goal was never, Papacy first, responsibility later; his goal was always to take action to effect positive change and heal social ills, wherever he was, whatever his level of power. And that is precisely the reason he is such an inspirational figure.

In his latest encyclical, the first ever focused solely on climate change, the Pope remarks: “I wish to address every person living on this planet” in adopting a “circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations.” This is not an issue of Catholic versus non-Catholic, or religious versus non-religious, rich versus poor, or elite versus the masses. Responsibility must be universal just as human rights, such as freedom, must be universal.

To be a morally conscious adult means to accept both personal freedom and personal responsibility, and not just insist on former while denying the latter. Just as your freedom allows you to pursue your goals and financial gains, and to shape your path, your responsibility also holds you liable to act in a manner that benefits whole society and posterity. Otherwise, regardless of whether you’re paying your taxes or have a job, you’re in a state of moral childhood.

As Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science (and soon to become the president of the National Academy of Sciences), recently wrote in the editorial of that journal:

In the history of humankind, there is a dearth of examples of global threats so far-reaching in their impact, so dire in their consequences, and considered so likely to occur that they have engaged all nations in risk mitigation […] In Dante’s Inferno, he describes the nine circles of Hell, each dedicated to different sorts of sinners, with the outermost being occupied by those who didn’t know any better, and the innermost reserved for the most treacherous offenders. I wonder where in the nine circles Dante would place all of us who are borrowing against this Earth in the name of economic growth, accumulating an environmental debt by burning fossil fuels, the consequences of which will be left for our children and grandchildren to bear?

So how can you take actionable steps as a morally conscious adult? At PD, we’ve discussed many ways individuals can alleviate climate change. One of the most powerful and joyous ways to effect change is to become a vegan. Having an eco-friendly household, reducing plastic waste, taking public transportation or cycling are all easy habits to incorporate into your life. But perhaps most important is to reconsider “growth for growth’s sake” mentality that has driven the Earth to this crisis, and shifting the focus from having more material things, to having more meaning.

Also see: Why Being Vegan Helps the World’s Oceans

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Photo: Oxfam International via Flickr


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