June 24, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Papal Encyclical

Mr. President, I am on the floor today for the 104th time–one of these days, I am going to get it right–to urge that we wake up to the dangers of climate change.

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm for decades. Our most respected scientific institutions are virtually unanimous in their verdict: Carbon pollution from humans’ burning of fossil fuels is warming our atmosphere and oceans, raising and acidifying our seas, loading the dice for more extreme weather, and disrupting the natural systems upon which we all depend. They are not alone.

Our defense and intelligence communities warn us of the threats these climate disruptions pose to our national security and to international stability.

Public health officials warn that greenhouse gas pollution and its effects trigger human health risks.

Economists–even very conservative ones–have long recognized the distortion of energy markets ignoring the true cost of carbon pollution.

Our government’s accountants now list climate change as one of the most significant threats to America’s fiscal stability. The new Republican CBO chief even put sea level rise and increased storm activity from climate change into his budget outlook just last week.

Of course, voices of faith call to us. They plead that we heed the moral imperatives of protecting God’s creation, seeking justice for all people, and meeting our own responsibilities to future generations.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called for us to “develop a sense of the oneness of humanity” and address climate change. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently issued a declaration, along with other British religious leaders, warning of the “huge challenge” of climate change and supporting an international climate treaty to be negotiated in Paris this December.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, has called climate change “a matter of social and economic justice.”

More than 350 rabbis have signed a rabbinic letter on the climate crisis calling for vigorous action against climate disruption and global socioeconomic injustice, reminding us that “social justice, sustainable abundance, a healthy Earth, and spiritual fulfillment are inseparable.”

Last week, Pope Francis, the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church, which is the largest Christian denomination in the world, the largest Christian denomination in the United States, and the largest Christian denomination in my home State of Rhode Island, added his charismatic voice to the call.

In the Roman Catholic Church, an encyclical is a papal letter sent to all bishops. It is considered among the most authoritative documents of Catholic teaching. Rather than just an internal communication to the clergy, however, this encyclical of Pope Francis on climate change is explicitly addressed to “every single living person on this planet.” It is entitled “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be to You,” a reference to the “Canticle of the Sun” by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, friend of the poor, and namesake of this Pope.

This encyclical accepts and affirms what we know about climate change: that most is due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity; that seas are rising, oceans acidifying, polar ice melting; that weather is worsening at the extremes; and that basic systems of life on our planet home are being disrupted.

He writes:

[W]e need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. ….. [T]hings are now reaching a breaking point. ….. [H]umanity has disappointed God’s expectations.

The Earth herself, he says, “groans in travail.”

Pope Francis tells us that “humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” Specifically, he says that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

The Pope reminds us that as we in power sleepwalk through this crisis, we are hurting people who have no voice today. First, we harm future generations, leaving them a world that, to use his own words, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“[T]he world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others,” the Pope writes. “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice.”

The Pope also emphasizes that when we damage that gift, we inflict particular harm on the poor, who live close to the Earth–outside of our privileged bubble of consumption. They rely on agriculture, fishing, and forestry for their livelihoods and sustenance. As climate change disrupts natural systems, the poor take the hit most directly. As a result, Pope Francis says, we who have profited most from burning fossil fuels owe a debt to the rest of the world. He calls it our “ecological debt.”

The United States has produced more carbon dioxide than any other nation. Our historical responsibility calls us to help other nations develop cleaner energy, relieve their systematized poverty, and soften the blow of climate change. This responsibility, this call from Pope Francis matters particularly for America, the indispensable and the exceptional nation. Years ago, Daniel Webster described the work of our Founding Fathers as having “set the world an example.” From John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, we have called ourselves a city on a hill, set high for the world to witness, to emulate.

“Should we ignore the climate disruption we have caused,” Pope Francis warns, “those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.”

In saying that, Pope Francis aligns squarely with Daniel Webster’s warning from that same speech–his warning about our American experiment in popular liberty: “The last hopes of mankind, therefore, rest with us; and if it should be proclaimed that our example had become an argument against the experiment, the knell of popular liberty would be sounded throughout the earth.”

Pope Francis’s encyclical even has something to say directly to us in Congress. He says:

“To take up these responsibilities, and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. But if they are courageous, they will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility.”

Remember the Pharisees. Remember the traders and the money changers in the temple. If we choose to ignore the call of the Pope and of leaders of faith around the world and choose to protect the side that is polluting and destroying, even when we see right before our faces its ravage of our natural world, its harm to the poor, its robbery of future generations, what are we then? What are we then? Jesus himself, the Lamb of God, lost his temper twice, the Bible tells us; once at the Pharisees and once at the traders and money changers in the temple. He went after them with a lash, actually. Are we to take their side now? Must we, in the Senate, serve Caesar in every single thing? Is there no light left here at all?

Here in the Senate, the hand of greed lies so heavily upon us. Please, may the Pope’s exhortation give us the courage to stand up against the power of these selfish forces and do what is right for our people and for our planet.

The fossil fuel industry has been a particular disgrace, polluting our politics as well as our planet. Ever since the Citizens United ruling gave polluters the ability to inject unlimited and untold amounts of money into our elections, the tsunami of their slime has drowned honest debate on climate change. Senators who once supported commonsense legislation have gone silent as stones under the threat of the polluters’ spending. Getting past the dark influence of the fossil fuel industry will indeed take some light and some courage, especially on the part of the Republican majority whom they so relentlessly bully and cajole. But we must do it. Again, mankind will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.

Senator Schatz and I have even offered legislation rooted in conservative free-market principles. We would put a fee on carbon pollution and return all the revenue to the American people. It would reduce carbon pollution 40 percent by 2025 and be a significant down payment on our ecological debt to the world and, by the way, it would generate significant tax cuts and economic benefits for American families and businesses in the process. I urge friends across the aisle, please, take a serious look at our bill.

In seeking a solution to the climate crisis, Pope Francis asks each of us to “draw constantly from [our] deepest convictions about love, justice, and peace.” He dares us even “to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering”–into our own personal suffering–”and thus discover what each of us can do about it.” He urges us to recognize the systems around us–the financial systems, the industrial systems, the economic systems, the political systems–are drawing us down a destructive and unjust path.

But his encyclical to the world illuminates another path–a compassionate path, blazed with abiding faith in the human family, a path toward the preservation of our common home and our common decency.

The choice of which path we take will be a fateful one.

I yield the floor.