Pope Francis’ letter on global warming had a special resonance in the Triangle last week. It came after two days of record-setting high temperatures.
Hot days by themselves don’t prove that the world is getting warmer, but the experience of such swelter before summer even officially begins gives a visceral sense of what is at stake if the world community does not act. It’s time to drastically cut the primary cause of rising temperatures: carbon pollution.
The pope’s encyclical letter, titled “Laudato Si (Praise be to you, my Lord) and subtitled, “Care for Our Common Home,” hardly contained divine revelation. He simply asserted what 97 percent of scientists already have affirmed: Climate change is real and failure to mitigate its causes will be catastrophic.
“Doomsday predictions,” the pope warned, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”
Francis traces the roots of the climate crisis to industries and nations exploiting and polluting the Earth at the expense of the poor, who face exposure to pollution and increasingly intense weather events. He said those with the power to reverse the trend have an obligation to do so not only to the poor, but to future generations and to the power that created the planet that nurtures humanity.
“We are not God,” the pope wrote. “The Earth was here before us and has been given to us.”
Francis’ letter is significant not for how it approaches the facts, but for how it changes the context. He has turned the climate argument from a political debate to a moral one. Defenders of burning fossil fuels and global-warming deniers will find a moral obligation harder to dismiss.
However, some of the deniers are unresponsive to moral appeals as well as to scientific evidence. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, who says heavy snowfalls show that global warming is a myth, told USA Today: “I am concerned that his encyclical will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history.”
Nonetheless, Elizabeth Ouzts, the Raleigh-based communication director for the advocacy group, Environment America, said the pope’s statement may have more influence than new rules that will be sought at the upcoming international summit on climate change in Paris.
Ouzts said the pope had addressed the issue in “an incredibly bold and visible way, and it really has the potential to rally public opinion to solve global warming in a way politicians can no longer ignore or dismiss. This encyclical could have more impact than the agreements we hope to reach in Paris, so that’s a big impact.”
Resistance in North Carolina
Perhaps heat from the pope and heat from the sun will start to melt opposition to doing something about climate change in North Carolina. Rather than find ways to reduce carbon emissions, Gov. Pat McCrory is promoting offshore drilling. In the legislature, there’s an effort to end renewable energy requirements that have helped create a booming solar power industry. McCrory has opposed the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan rule that would reduce emissions from coal-powered power plants.
Despite denials of the threat, climate change is already affecting North Carolina. It’s especially threatening to the state’s coastal areas because its shallow coastal plain magnifies any rise in sea level. State environmental regulators estimate that the North Carolina coast could experience sea level rise from 2.4 to 8.1 inches over the next 30 years. The result will be more frequent flooding in low-lying areas and a more severe impact from storms.
In its March letter to members, the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter said, “Evidence of sea level rise is everywhere you look on the coast, from Elizabeth City to Wilmington. It’s visible in the soil that won’t drain, forests that are dying for no apparent reason, and roads that flood far more frequently than they used to. It manifests in reports of failing stormwater systems and commuters who plan their trips to avoid highways flooded by the high tides. You can hear about it from the farmer who is worried about the sheen of salt clearly visible on his crops.”
The pope has told the world to respond to the endangering of the Earth. In North Carolina, the sea is saying the same. Let’s hope those able to make the needed changes listen before it is too late.