This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst.
Pope Benedict XVI has received his share of criticism from the scientific community, most recently because of his statement that condoms increase the risk of HIV transmission. But in his December 15 message for the Catholic Church’s annual World Day of Peace, he gave ecological scientists and environmentalists something to celebrate, presenting environmental stewardship as a moral duty and calling for an international effort to embrace a more environmentally sustainable way of life:
The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations.
The theme of this year’s celebration “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation” speaks to the connection between ecological health and social justice, a matter of particular importance when, according to Benedict, “large numbers of people in different countries and areas of our planet are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment.”
Sustainable living was first positioned as a moral imperative by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s. Pope Benedict has been dubbed by some as “The Green Pope” by furthering this theme. In 2008, he named “polluting the environment” one of seven new sins now requiring repentance.
The Vatican recently outfitted its buildings with solar panels and is working to build Europe’s largest solar power plant. When the plant goes online in 2014, the Vatican will be the world’s first solar powered sovereign state (admittedly, its tiny size and population place it at something of an advantage). The country is already the first to go carbon-neutral-thanks to a donation from an eco-restoration firm, its emissions are offset by trees planted in a Hungarian national park.
In his World Day of Peace message, Benedict underscored the humanitarian aspects of current environmental problems, asking:
Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees”, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development.
With more than a billion members, the Catholic Church has tremendous influence around the globe. As a champion of environmental stewardship and international cooperation, the Pope could be central in broadening support for sustainability, particularly as world leaders struggle to reach a climate agreement.
The full text of the message is available here.