Stealth Agenda

01.18.15 11:45 AM ET

Pope Francis: Stealth Climate Warrior

The pontiff’s visit to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines lets him highlight the dangers of climate change while affirming traditional Church teachings.

Pope Francis is in Sri Lanka and the Philippines this week on his second tour of Asia. His whirlwind trip through centers of both religious piety and religious conflict is an opportunity for Francis to deliver some of the high points of his papal message in his own distinctive style. The calls for truth and reconciliation he issued when he touched down on Tuesday were matched by sharp reiterations of Catholic teachings against contraception on Thursday. That’s the Francis spirit—lead with “love thy neighbor” and then sharply remind people that he’s not just about kissing babies. But Francis’s agenda in Asia is about more than just the usual fare.

On Thursday in the Philippines, Francis met with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan and called out human beings as responsible for climate change. “Man has gone too far,” said the Pope; “it is man who continually slaps down nature.” Talking climate change in the shadow of a natural disaster is classic Francis. By meeting with those most affected by extreme weather events Francis is drawing attention to the ways that natural disasters are linked to climate change and putting a human face on the global warming debate.

The reporting of Francis’s statements on climate change didn’t quite command the media attention that his strong statements about contraception did, but they are an important part of Francis’s plan for the future. In many ways the Pope’s statements are a prelude to what we can expect from Francis in 2015. Back in November, the Vatican announced that Francis’s next papal encyclical would focus on climate change. According to Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the pope’s aim is to influence the U.N. climate meeting in Paris in December this year.

Francis has been circling the issue of climate change for a while. His headline-grabbing apostolic exhortation on poverty used the language of conservation and waste to criticize how wealthy organizations exploit the poor. And, in October 2014, Francis addressed a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements, saying: “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.” He added, “The monopolizing of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth.”

This kind of language runs the risk of attracting a backlash from more conservative Catholics, particularly in the U.S. When Francis issued his apostolic exhortation Evangelium Gaudii in 2013, in which he condemned the excesses of capitalism, he was publicly criticized by high profile media pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. There were even reports of major Catholic donors withholding funds from the church because they disagreed with Francis’s economics. The same thing may happen here, especially because right-wing Catholic politicians like John Boehner and Rick Santorum are also notable global warming skeptics. By singling out climate change in such a public way, Francis will be going head to head with some of the most powerful elements of modern American Catholicism.

But papal concern for the environment is nothing new. In 1990 Pope John Paul II wrote that “individuals, states, and international bodies [must] take seriously [their] responsibility” with respects to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI followed suit and routinely invoked theological and ethical importance of the environment.

The difference is that Francis is willing to focus on the economics of the environment. As Professor Christiana Peppard, author of Just Water: Theology Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis  and a leading expert on environmental ethics at Fordham, told the Daily Beast,  “Part of what Pope Francis has highlighted, in continuity with his predecessors, is that environmental degradation has political and economic causes as well as social effects.”

Peppard added that Francis’s popularity and focus on people gives him a rhetorical edge: “As a wildly popular Pope in a digital age, his stature has the unique possibility of conveying how these are human, moral issues—not partisan issues—grounded in scientific and social scientific facts, with real consequences for the well-being of people worldwide.”

What sets Francis apart is both his sharp critique of structures of power and his seductive popular style. He leads with the human face of global issues and sharp denouncements of exploitation. And he cushions the blow of seemingly liberal pronouncements by padding them with vocal support for traditional church teachings on contraception.

Last year may well have been the hottest year in earth’s recorded history, but focusing public attention on climate change and taking decisive steps towards conserving the planet is a goal that has eluded many world leaders. As both a trained chemist and pope, Francis has expertise and influence that some of his secular peers do not. It’s easier for conservative Catholics to shrug off scientific evidence than it is to disregard a papal mandate. Climate change may not be sexy, but Francis has charisma. In this case religion may be just what science needs.