After a stern and historic speech on Wednesday at the White House, in which Pope Francis riffed on Martin Luther King, Jr. when saying the world had “defaulted on a promissory note” when it came to protecting the environment, the Pope devoted few words to global warming in his speech to Congress on Thursday. And the words he did say were underwhelming. In fact, Francis never mentioned the words “climate change” at all.
The pope’s only reference to global warming came toward the end of the speech, sandwiched between a dig on capitalism and a vague call for more research on the problem: “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference.”
Republicans in the audience, predictably, didn’t seem convinced. As Democrats stood and applauded the pope’s optimistic tone, many Republicans sat silently. Still, it was not a very memorable moment.
Remember, this is the same pope who said in his landmark encyclical earlier this year that “the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” and that, while trashing the planet, “we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.” That is the pope I was expecting to hear on Thursday, but he didn’t show up.
Glimpses of a more fiery pontiff were there in other parts of the speech—a section on the Golden Rule as it relates to refugees was especially pointed, and caring for the common good was a theme throughout—but there was no urgency for what Francis yesterday called a “critical moment in the history of our civilization.”
What’s clear, and what the pope has said previously, is that climate change has already irrevocably altered life for every single person on this planet. For many people in rich countries, this change has been imperceptible—another somber news story that’s easily brushed aside. But the biggest problem with climate change is that it affects everything—and everyone—especially the poor. To fix that, the whole system must change.
The pope’s timid words to Congress, at least, aren’t going to inspire that change. It will be interesting to watch if his address to global heads of state on Friday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York carries the same tone. Let’s hope not.