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Pope Francis Promotes Dialogue About the Environment on US Visit

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Pope Francis with President and Mrs. Obama | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

“I want to dialogue.” Pope Francis used these words repeatedly in his first two days of travel through the United States. He used them at the White House Wednesday (23 September), where he spent a good deal of time talking about environmental stewardship, and again today when speaking to a joint session of Congress.  

“I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue in which I hope to listen to and share many of the hopes and dreams of the American people,” Pope Francis said during a 20-minute Arrival Ceremony hosted by President and Mrs. Obama.  

Today, he said he wrote his recent environmental encyclical “Laudato si´”—a document endorsed by Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program—in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”

“Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation,” the pontiff said at the White House. “ When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

Speaking to Congress, he said,  “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

In today's lengthier speech, he talked about putting technology “at the service of progress that is healthier, more human, more social, more integral,” and did so while affirming America’s “outstanding academic and research institutions” that have the potential to make vital contributions in the years ahead.

The Pope’s voice offers “an important moral backdrop to the type of policy decisions that individual leaders will make on climate change,” said Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, on a press call  last Thursday (17 September). Rhodes also said he expected Pope Francis to demonstrate “the possibilities that exist for dialogue.”  

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Moral Action for Climate Justice rally | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Such possibilities were on display at a rally on the National Mall. “Moral Action for Climate Justice” was held in conjunction with the Pope's congressional visit. With a large crowd assembled in front of the Capitol building as a backdrop, a multi-faith group of several hundred people gathered to advocate for change in environmental policy.

Headlining the event was Moby, a well-known musician who sports a cross tattoo on the back of his neck. 


Moby performs at Moral Action for Climate Justice rally | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Moby doesn’t think resistance to the reality of climate change originates within religious groups, but with corporations that seek to manipulate them. Climate change is the product of many variables, he said, and so the solution has to involve many variables as well, including a faith-based solution. 

The Rev. Mitch Hescox, President and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, spoke about challenges and opportunities in dialogue around environmental stewardship at a conference this spring sponsored by AAAS.

Today, he expressed hope that Pope Francis’ widely reported message will be pivotal in convincing Americans of the dire need for action on climate change. "I hope and pray that his reminder, and his grace and humility will help us come together," Hescox said.

Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, a representative of the Philadelphia chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, helped organize a Yom Kippur event Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial in solidarity with Pope Francis’ environmental message. A chemistry and physics major in college, Klein said her heart eventually drew her to become a faith leader and in recent years she felt a call from God to promote action on climate change.

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Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

“Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the most holy day of the year,” she said today. It is a day for Jews to look within to atone for both personal and communal sins. This relates to her work on climate change because “it starts with atonement, recognizing what are the things that we do that are making a mess and taking responsibility” for that environmental mess.

“For too long there has been a perceived divide between science and faith,” EA Dyson, communications director at Friends of the Earth, said as the Pope's speech to Congress was broadcast on a Jumbotron nearby. “What we’re seeing through Pope Francis is that there needn’t be that divide. It’s possible to reconcile faith and science, and this [event] is proof of that.”

“Climate is not just an environmental issue,” added Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Among other things, it’s a moral and ethical issue.

“What gives me so much optimism and hope is that so many people from so many different movements and perspectives are coming together to address the climate crisis,” Meyer said.

“Science and religion need to partner to get the message out,” he said. UCS members have technical information, but may not be the best messengers for a lay audience. “Everyone has to hear it in words that they understand and from people that they trust and who they think have their interests at heart," said Meyer.