Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation through March 1. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.
Critics of the Nobel Peace Prize often note its glaring omissions, perplexing choices, and selection of those with pasts that are checkered at best. But the award has gone to many extraordinary champions of human rights and genuine peace: Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Wałęsa, Elie Wiesel, Wangari Maathai, Shirin Ebadi, Malala Yousafzai, Liu Xiaobo, and Jody Williams are just a few of the many worthy recipients.
While Mother Teresa won the award in 1979, no pope has ever received the honor of being a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. That should change this year.
For his leadership in confronting climate change and the degradation of the environment, Pope Francis should win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. He has had a transformative impact on the public’s consciousness of the grave threats facing creation, including the growing menace of climate change. He described these threats in stark terms, saying, “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” And with this searing critique of the status quo, he has also offered a vision of a better future: sustainable development that is rooted in respect for creation and the dignity of the human person.
Pollution, climate change, and other environmental threats pose a serious risk to international and human security. They threaten future generations with inhumane living conditions and diminished resources, while prematurely ending the lives of millions of people around the world today. The World Health organization estimates that over 7 million people die each from air pollution alone. The degradation of the environment will intensify competition for resources in ways that will spark future conflicts. To care about peace is to care about creation.
The environmental movement (however unfair the characterization may be) has a reputation among many Americans for being secular, technocratic, and more concerned with the plight of obscure insects than human welfare. Pope Francis is changing this reputation.
His concerns about climate change center less on the risk to polar bears and more on the human impact. He has elevated the critical point that confronting climate change and protecting the environment are necessary for the full protection of human rights. The destruction of creation cannot be separated from the throwaway culture that Francis has denounced again and again.
The pope has framed these issues in moral terms, asking for all of the world’s people and governments to reflect upon and live out their moral responsibilities to creation and the vulnerable people of the world.
By enlisting the Catholic Church in this fight, Pope Francis’ encyclical has been a game changer. But Pope Francis has not limited his outreach to just Catholics or even Christians. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis is addressing every person on the planet, knowing that we have a responsibility to respond as one human family to the crisis facing our common home. He has provided real global leadership on these critical issues. And we may already be seeing positive outcomes linked to this leadership.
The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference was a critical test to see if the world would heed Francis’ advice and respond to the challenges posed by climate change. Pope Francis did not sit on the sidelines or let his past remarks stand. Instead, Pope Francis expressed confidence that the Paris conference would “secure fundamental and effective agreements.” His encouragement and the moral framework that he provided helped to push the conference toward a successful outcome. Dr. Alison Doig of Christian Aid called Pope Francis’ impact on the talks “transformative.”
Pope Francis has also taken on the challenge of upending the status quo in American politics on climate change. Many conservative parties in Europe and elsewhere are shaped more by Catholic social teaching than social Darwinism and therefore have a strong commitment to protecting the environment. It seems entirely fitting that a conservative would recognize the wisdom and morality of conserving the environment and protecting God’s creation. Even in the United States, it was the Republican administration of Theodore Roosevelt that most dramatically reshaped our nation’s commitment to conservation. And many still remember President George HW Bush’s pledge to be “the environmental president,” which he made in his campaign for the presidency.
But there now exists a sharp break between the GOP’s approach to the environment and the approach taken by the center-right parties of other affluent countries. Roosevelt Republicans are almost entirely absent from elected office. Climate change skepticism and denialism permeate the Republican Party, setting it apart from mainstream conservative parties around the world.
The casual dismissal of scientific consensus, reckless disregard for the responsibilities of good stewardship, and extreme devotion to a free market fundamentalist agenda have shown that the Republican Party is more reactionary than conservative. Given the necessity of American action when it comes to truly tackling climate change and the difference that bipartisan support would make, the party’s spiral into collective indifference is a serious problem.
But Francis did not shy away from this problem in his trip to the US, directly emphasizing the need to respond to climate change. During his trip, Francis said, “It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history.” Millions of Republican voters agree. And Pope Francis’ trip seemed to inspire a few Congressional Republicans to break ranks and affirm their belief that climate change is real and that this should not be a partisan issue. This shift is slight, but real.
Pope Francis’ global leadership on climate change and the protection of the environment is making a real difference. When Nobel voters cast their ballots, they should reflect upon the serious threats posed by climate change and environmental degradation and recognize the efforts of Pope Francis, who has persuasively and persistently challenged the world to respond to this great challenge to justice and peace.
[Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial. He is a doctoral candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]