Pope Francis and Obama make joint appeal for climate action

Pope’s address promises to rile Republicans who deny human connection to climate change.


On his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis greeted Americans by exhorting them to care for refugees, immigrants and the planet.

Thousands of dignitaries and invited guests from around the country gathered to welcome the pontiff on the South Lawn of the White House under a robin-egg-blue sky Wednesday morning. President Barack Obama joked that his “backyard is not typically this crowded.”

Francis commended the president for responding to the need for urgent action on climate change with his Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

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Photo: the Vatican Network

“Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation,” Francis said, and the crowd responded with applause. “When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.” 

Diplomats from around the world are negotiating a new international climate change treaty, which is expected to emerge from a meeting in Paris at the end of this year. The pope emboldened negotiators in June with a powerful call in his encyclical for aggressive action to reduce the use of fossil fuel and the destruction of ecosystems, both of which contribute to climate change. He emphasized that poor people suffer most from climate change. But he stressed that the whole world faces grave economic, social and political implications from global warming, which he called “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Obama, who spoke before the pope at the White House ceremony, lauded the pope’s leadership on climate.

“Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet, God’s magnificent gift to us. We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to changing climate, and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations,” Obama said in a speech.

The president said the pope has used his moral authority to awaken people around the world to crises they might otherwise ignore, such as the Syrian refugee crisis and global warming. 

“[Y]ou are shaking us out of complacency,” the president said. “All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true, what we know to be right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber.”

Lourdes Castro Ramirez joins thousands on White House lawn welcoming Pope Francis. By Elizabeth Shogren
The crowd on the White House lawn, many of them immigrants and some of them from Western states, stood on toes, raising their cameras and smartphones to glimpse the pontiff, who was dressed in flowing white robes and a simple white cap. Lourdes Castro Ramirez gasped and then beamed when she caught her first sight of him. After his speech, Ramirez said: “It was perfect. Just perfect.”

Ramirez, whose family moved from Mexico when she was a toddler, was particularly moved by the way the pope introduced himself: “As a son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” the pope said.

Ramirez, a native of Linwood Lynwood, California, recently moved to Washington to work for the Housing and Urban Development Department. She believes the pope’s positions on climate will move Catholics around the world to action. “We take our Earth for granted,” she said. “For those of us who are religious, it’s significant that the pope wants us to not only take care of each other but also our Earth.”

Nigel Stacey, 26, a law student at Georgetown University, originally from Seattle, said Pope Francis already has changed his life, inspiring him to volunteer as a tutor.

For Audrey Dow, 40, from Los Angeles,, the pope’s inclusive style has encouraged her to start regularly attending mass. She went only occasionally in recent years because she felt the Catholic Church was dogmatic, judgmental and lacked forgiveness. “It makes me excited. I can welcome my children to a church that’s more tolerant and I believe truthful,” she said.

Even before his visit, Francis was very popular with Americans. But it’s less clear if they like his climate policy. A new Bloomberg Politics poll found 64 percent of respondents view the pope favorably. But 56 percent disagree with his pronouncements chastising people who deny a human connection to climate change. On the other hand, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll of American Catholics found 68 percent of respondents approved of the way the pope addresses environmental issues. Many say the real test of American’s reactions to the pope’s teachings will come following his visit.

After meeting privately with the president, the pope in his white Popemobile traveled several blocks around the Ellipse, near the White House. He kissed babies, waved, gestured, made signs of the cross and flashed a thumbs-up, thrilling crowds who lined the parade route to see him. The dynamics at the pope’s visit to the US Capitol tomorrow likely will be trickier. One Republican, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, plans to boycott the pope’s address.

“If the pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time,” Gosar said in a letter to the editor to a conservative website. “But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous.” (In fact, the science is sound on climate change, with resounding agreement among climate scientists that human activity and carbon output is warming the planet.)

While many Republicans deny that people are influencing climate change or argue that the economy would be hurt by efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, they are not monolithic on climate change. Prior to the pope’s visit, Rep. Chris Gibson of New York and 10 other Republicans introduced a resolution to address the causes and effects of “measured changes to our global and regional climates including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.” The only Western representative to sign on was David Reichert of Washington state.

The pope has also been divisive in other ways on his trip so far. Francis, the first pope from the Americas, chose an 18th-century Spanish missionary to California to canonize during his visit. Some Native Americans from California opposed the canonization, because they believe Junipero Serra helped destroy their culture. Natives were forced to drop their culture when they were converted, and many died from diseases contracted from Europeans.

In a recent open letter to the pope, Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band in California, beseeched him not to declare Serra a saint but instead apologize for the terror Serra promoted at the church’s missions in California.

"The terror included violent capture, enslavement, torture and rape… [and] that resulted in the death of 150,000 California Indians at the missions," he writes. "How the Catholic Church and you, Holy Father, can consider Serra’s actions to be holy, sacred or saintly is incomprehensible to our Tribe."

Some historians, meanwhile, saw huge significance for Hispanic Americans in the event.

“This canonization is saying that long before the Anglos, in places like California, Hispanics were making their mark,” said Steven Hackel, a history professor at University of California Riverside. “We can certainly debate the meaning of Serra and the legacies of his missions for Indians, but how can this canonization not give greater visibility and importance to the Hispanic history of the Southwest?”

Francisco LaRubia-Prado, a Georgetown University professor in department of Spanish and Portuguese, said Serra embodies the Western pioneer spirit.

“In a time of multiculturalism—and in the interest of historical rigor—Fray Junípero emerges as a frontier soul, and a pioneer in the American experience,” LaRubia-Prado said.

As the pope prepares for this address to Congress tomorrow, environmentalists hope he can change minds and provoke action, but there is no indication that Republicans are open to change on an issue that has become exceedingly divisive in American politics.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.  

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