One might imagine, or hope, that Congress would experience the historic address of Pope Francis to a joint session later this week as something beyond partisan bickering—a chance to listen to a voice above the fray of politics, one whose reasoned effort, literally, to save the world deserves more than a hearing. It deserves listening.
Unfortunately, there already are some suggesting the pontiff is trying to play a political game. As he talks about the manifest threats to the environment, they appear determined to blame the messenger, even a man of great faith speaking in good faith.
But if some are determined not to listen, the rest of us should. If the pope’s speech is anything like his encyclical—Laudato Si’—released earlier this summer, expect some sort of solutions-based roadmap. The pope is very pragmatically concerned about the viability and the sustainability of our current social, economic and environmental systems.
The concerns raised in the encyclical are sound policy suggestions. A failure to tackle difficult issues, like water scarcity and global warming, will undoubtedly and assuredly lead to conflict, if not violence. That is what the pope and like-minded professionals in the conflict field are trying to avoid.
Take water, for example, in a specifically American context that concerns a great many lawmakers in Congress. As the Western U.S. wages war against wildfires and suffers from economically devastating droughts, Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si’ that the “control of water…will become a major source of conflict in this century.” And at a minimum, that should start a serious conversation on the Hill.
Francis is right as well when he says “greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food,” which is already costing California mightily, and a global “acute water shortage may occur within a few decades,” something the thirsty in Sao Paolo, Sana’a, and Syria know all too well already.
We need solutions before reaching “peak water,” the point at which freshwater is being consumed faster than it’s being replenished, because it’s a simple if frightening fact that we are very ill prepared for that moment.
But it’s not just water that’s approaching a tipping point. In the encyclical, Pope Francis notes several resource security concerns, from overheated oceans to overexploited forests, all of which can imperil our ability to survive.
Tipping temperatures and carbon dioxide intake off balance, in oceans and forests respectively, can result in extreme weather and unmanageable atmosphere, establishing a breeding ground for conflict and contagion. (Yet another reason why any effort to lift people out of poverty must be done sustainably.)
It is understandable that Pope Francis is seeking every possible pulpit, from D.C.’s National Mall to Central Park in New York City—to make us understand that a safe and secure future is unfeasible unless we course correct. This is a Saint Francis of Assisi devotee who clearly cares about humanity, someone who wants everyone to be prosperous, to have equal opportunity, and to live freely. He made this clear in the encyclical.
But we have to recognize the disturbing reality behind that agenda. Our current use of water, energy, agriculture, oceans and forests is not sustainable. At present consumption rates, there’s simply not enough to go around, which was the Pope’s point. We cannot sustain the status quo.
Conservation of resources is a conservative value. We should all be able to work together to address these concerns. And this is not just a conversation that needs to occur in Congress. It must begin in person, in our communities, and in our homes. A frank conversation about who we are and where we’re headed. And no better time to start one than in the House on September 24.