By Amy Huva and Seth Cauman
What do the pope and the fossil-fuel divestment movement have in common? This may sound like the start of a joke, but the answer is revealing: They are promoting a moral imperative to act on climate change.
This month, Pope Francis is gearing up to give his first encyclical (advice that is sent out to all bishops) on the topic of climate change. The broad message is likely to be that Catholics have a principled duty to protect God’s creation, which includes taking steps to address climate change and protecting those who stand to lose the most to climate inaction.
Given that approximately one in six people worldwide are Catholic, and nearly seven in 10 Catholics in the U.S. think global warming is happening, this is a big deal. As climate writer David Roberts at Vox outlined recently, the climate movement has so far failed to convincingly appeal to Americans on moral grounds, preferring to talk about climate change as a policy or scientific issue, forgetting that facts are interpreted through the lens of one’s own beliefs and worldviews and stories are one of the best tools for motivating action. It seems the pope may be on to something.
The moral frame around climate change has many things going for it. It avoids bickering about the science, because you don’t need to debate data when you’re talking about shared values like responsibility, stewardship and equity. It also grounds the issue in things you care about and then calls on you to protect them, which is a much easier sell than getting people excited about acronyms they don’t understand. The pope is a trusted messenger who has the power to cut through political polarization and frame climate change in the content of our responsibilities to one another and to the planet we depend on.
(Check out the Climate Access tip sheet for guidance on how to communicate climate action as a moral imperative.)
Another group using ethics to spur action on climate change is the fossil-fuel divestment movement, led by 350.org. At its core, divestment aims to dissuade investors from holding shares in fossil fuel companies on the grounds that it’s immoral to invest in an industry causing so much harm to people and the environment. It’s a unique blend of principled impetus and economic strategy. From the beginning, 350.org has focused on college and university campuses as a place to promote divestment campaigns, taking a stand against the hypocrisy of post-secondary institutions profiting from the destruction of the future health and well-being of their students.
The divestment movement has seen an increasing number of victories including commitments to divest by 31 colleges and universities, 42 cities, 70 religious institutions and 33 foundations around the globe. This was most recently punctuated by divestment commitments from large organizations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Guardian Media Group and the Church of England. The Guardian’s Keep it in the ground is targeting the two largest charitable foundations in the world: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Safe to say, divestment is gaining ground.
The pope’s encyclical on climate change will bolster the moral argument for acting on climate. It will reach new audiences with messages that resonate with those who don’t consider themselves to be environmentalists, and inspire others to take their own moral stand. Specifically, in the U.S., this presents an opportunity to reach white Catholics, who predominantly vote Republican as well as Catholics who make up a large percentage of the population in shoreline states in New England, as well as drought-stricken states like New Mexico and California.
The pope will be speaking to the U.S. Congress and the UN about climate change in September before the next round of UN climate change negotiations in Paris in December, leaving space for a growing chorus of faith groups to call for action on climate change because it is morally the right thing to do.
The heart of the moral argument for climate change is shared values, for the places we live, the people we love and the things that mean the most to us. The addition of more voices calling for climate action in their own way, combined with the leadership of the pope can only add to the growing climate movement.
image via (cc) Climate Reality Project