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Pope Francis frames climate change as moral issue

Staff and wire reports
Catholic Relief Services president was in Rome for the Pope's encyclical release.

— In a sweeping environmental manifesto aimed at spurring action, Pope Francis called Thursday for a revolution to correct what he called a "structurally perverse" economic system in which the rich exploit the poor, turning the Earth into an "immense pile of filth."

In his encyclical, Francis framed climate change as an urgent moral crisis. The former chemist blamed global warming on what he said was an unfair, fossil fuel-based industrial model that harms the poor the most.

The document released Thursday was a broadside against big business and climate change doubters. It was aimed at inspiring decisions at U.N. climate negotiations this year, as well as in domestic politics and everyday life.

Citing Scripture and his predecessors, Francis urged people of every faith and no faith to undergo an awakening to save God's creation.

"It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress," he wrote. "Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress."

Carolyn Woo, the president of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, was in Rome on Thursday to speak on a panel about the release.

Woo, a former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, asked the packed hall: "What kind of world do we want to leave those who come after us, to the children who are now growing up?"

She said the question "is completely relevant to each of us and, of course, to business."

"I think it's great for the pope to speak to one of the major crises for this generation," she told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview. "There is only so much time for us to change our behavior. The effects are cumulative."

Woo said Catholic Relief Services confronts the effects of climate change as it helps the world's poorest and most vulnerable peoples recover from storms and crop failures.

"We see how agriculture is impacted by increase in temperatures," she said. "I hope this encyclical will get a lot of people thinking. … I think it builds a consciousness on this issue."

Woo plans to return to Rome next month to discuss how to promote the pope's message.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said, "We must resist the 'throwaway culture' the pope warns against, and seek ways in our daily lives to practice environmentally friendly behavior.

"Whether one agrees or not with the scientific consensus on the link between human activity and recent climate change, the Holy Father rightly makes the moral case that the need remains for us to act to protect the our environment," Lori said in a statement.

Catholic Republican presidential candidates said they don't necessarily agree with the pope on climate change and that he shouldn't be getting involved in it.

"I don't think we should politicize our faith," Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, said before the encyclical's release. "I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm."

Pope Francis is scheduled to speak before Congress in September. Environmental scientists expressed hope that the encyclical would have a dramatic effect on the debate by lending the moral authority of the popular pontiff to an issue that has long been cast in purely political, economic and scientific terms.

"It's not politics anymore," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has briefed the pope on climate issues. He said science is often difficult to understand, but people respond to arguments framed in terms of morality and ethics.

Will Baker, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was grateful to Pope Francis for "speaking out on behalf of our threatened planet and its inhabitants."

"We join him in calling for stronger public and private actions to place the well-being of Earth above the profit motive," he said in a statement. "We are fortunate that religious leaders of various denominations are speaking out, calling on all caring people to become better stewards of creation."

The energy industry criticized the pope's anti-fossil fuel message.

"The simple reality is that energy is the essential building block of the modern world," said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute of Energy Research. "The application of affordable energy makes everything we do — food production, manufacturing, health care, transportation, heating and air conditioning — better."

Pope Francis said he hoped his paper, "Laudato Si [Praise Be]: On Care for Our Common Home," would lead people in their daily lives and decision-makers at the U.N. climate meetings in Paris to a wholesale change of mind and heart. He urged all to listen to "the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor."

The "vision of 'might is right' has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all," he wrote. "Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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