Last week we met Pope Francis as part of the historical event, Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter between Pope Francis and University Students. This was an experience we will never forget. As part of a working group of students from the central United States and Canada, we were voted by our peers to speak directly to Francis to relay the group’s ideas about global migration and its root causes.
Inspired by faith and reason, we spoke about climate change as an issue that profoundly worries our generation. We outlined climate change as a root cause of migration and a driver of future refugee crises. We cited studies that show that climate change currently displaces 20 million people annually and warn that there could be 1.4 billion climate refugees by 2060 and 2 billion by 2100.
We echoed sentiments from Laudato Sí by connecting climate action to our Catholic faith. We told him we have a critical opportunity to act on climate change, and asked for his advice on our proposed way of responding (for our full remarks, you can watch the recording of the event here.)
In our direct remarks to Pope Francis, we said: “Inaction perpetuates unjust violence on our common home. We have a rapidly closing window to avoid climate catastrophe that will forcibly displace millions, especially the marginalized, as climate refugees. Out of love, we feel that we must respond.”
Just days later, our assertion about climate change’s critical timetable was reinforced by the newly released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. This report has already been described as “an atlas of human suffering” and serves as a serious warning of the bleak world being left to ours and future generations if we don’t act urgently and boldly in the face of this crisis.
We read in the New York Times coverage of this report that, “If global warming reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius — as is now likely within the next few decades — roughly 8 percent of the world’s farmland could become unsuitable for growing food, the authors wrote. Coral reefs, which buffer coastlines against storms and sustain fisheries for millions of people, will face more frequent bleaching from ocean heat waves and decline by 70 to 90 percent. The number of people around the world exposed to severe coastal flooding could increase by more than one-fifth without new protections.”
These figures are stark, and quite honestly terrifying. As young people already anxious about our futures, findings such as these only sound the alarm louder.
It is for these reasons that we pleaded with Pope Francis to help us, as a Church, to take substantial action now.
There is a Catholic theological foundation for us to act in caring for creation. In Catholic teaching, one of the cardinal moral virtues that lead us to a more virtuous life is the concept of “prudence.” St. Thomas Aquinas defines prudence as "right reason applied to action,” or in other words, the ability to see the facts before us and take the most appropriate action now. Therefore, as Catholics, prudence requires our science-based responses to climate change – in a very full circle way it’s our reason informed by our faith.
The new IPCC report both informs and is informed by our faithful prudence, as were our comments to Pope Francis.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also reaffirms the practice of such action in support of science-based climate solutions. In the 2001 document "Global Climate Change A Plea for Dialogue Prudence and the Common Good,” written over two decades ago, it says, “In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus – even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious – justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind's well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action."
If we knew enough then, we certainly know enough now.
We believe this new IPCC report only reaffirms the issue’s true “Catholicity.” People and nations across the globe are experiencing deep suffering – most immediately and most severely the global poor. We used our rare opportunity to speak with Pope Francis to share these concerns as young people of faith and connect them to the Catholic Church’s institutional capacity and faith-fulfilling responsibility to take climate action.
In reading the IPCC report, it can be easy to be immobilized by fear and anxiety. The future seems quite uncertain. However, our conversation with Pope Francis last week gave us hope. The outpouring of support that we have received after our conversation with Pope Francis tells us that others have hope, too.
It’s not too late. We must act, and we must act together. Read the IPCC report, but also read Laudato Sí. Watch our encounter with Pope Francis. Join our efforts. Take all these pieces to prayer, reflecting on the “signs of the times” and on the two “greatest” commandments Jesus gives us: that we are to love God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39).
We know the science and we understand that our faith obligates action. We believe we have the tools to combat this crisis if we act with purpose and in solidarity with one another. The window of time to act might be closing, but so long as our hearts remain open, there is hope.