On Thursday, Pope Francis issued his newest encyclical, "Laudato Sii" (Praised Be To You), making the case that the environment is a moral issue. Catholics, and all people of good will, are asked to care for creation as God's gift and to preserve a quality of life for future generations. Francis believes we are in danger of losing sight of the giftedness of creation. He is concerned that while Genesis commands humankind to "till and keep," it has become clear that we have "tilled too much" and "kept too little."
The encyclical addresses the important issue of climate change. The pope, informed by his own scientific background, by his Pontifical Academy of Sciences and by the vast majority of climate scientists around the world, recognizes the increasing evidence of climate change. Years ago, scientists predicted that emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants would harm the Earth's environment; we are now seeing it in the data. Climate change is leading to more extreme weather. Research carried out at our university and at other institutes around the globe has shown that there are more droughts, floods, heat waves, rising seas and other extremes. And projections show that these trends will get worse without intentional action.
Francis explains that the climate is a common good, a good that is shared by all people. As evidence points to the kinds of human activity that contribute to negative repercussions, we need to respond to protect this common good. In particular, he is concerned about the significant impact climate disruption has on the poor around the world, especially those who rely upon subsistence agriculture, people who live close to present sea level and communities with fragile infrastructure. To become indifferent to those who suffer within these situations, according to Francis, is not only an injustice to the poor, but it erodes a sense of responsibility that is at the basis of all civil society.
What seems to be one of the defining ideas that will come out of the encyclical is a term called "integral ecology," which is the integration of human and natural ecology. We can't fully understand natural ecology without an understanding of human ecology and vice versa. Natural ecology is necessary for us to survive, but human ecology is critical for us to thrive and flourish. Francis wants to reconnect that the nature "out there" is inextricably connected to the human nature in each of us. He believes that what happens in the family — as well as in education, business and other human institutions — has direct implications on what is happening in our natural environment. We are not only subject to biological laws but to moral ones as well.
At the University of St. Thomas, a conference was recently held that brought together an interdisciplinary group of academics and practitioners to articulate real ways to make a positive environmental impact both in nature and in human institutions. On a personal level, of course, we can be more mindful of how we use energy and generate pollution in our daily lives. We can also be more mindful about excessive consumerism. We live in a throwaway culture where we are driven to purchase more and more, leaving us feeling emotionally and spiritually empty. As Pope Francis stresses, living lives that are committed to environmental sustainability is a direct outcome of lives of faith concerned with family life and those of our neighbors.
For this reason, collective actions matter as well. Our state of Minnesota has taken a leading role in wind-power generation and more recently with solar energy. We can be proud that we are now generating more clean and renewable energy while at the same time building the next-generation energy economy, which can bring economic prosperity. Minnesota has shown that greening our grid doesn't have to mean shutting the lights off. Simply put, we can solve this problem. But we also need to be mindful of how we treat the poor as well as the impact we are having on the institutions of family, education and business.
We encourage people to read this encyclical. It is another step in a long Catholic tradition of fostering a unity of knowledge that embraces faith and reason, and religion and science.
Now it is our time, as individuals and as members of a global community, to put into action plans and intentional lifestyles as Pope Francis advises that will serve a signing legacy to our future generations.
John Abraham is a climate scientist, University of St. Thomas. Calvin DeWitt is professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and president, Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists. William Junker is co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy at St. Thomas. Michael Naughton is director of the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas. Christopher Thompson is academic dean of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.