No, climate change is not just for the scientists

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum thinks that the pope should just leave climate change to the scientists.

Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Pope Francis actually has a scientific background—he has a certificate in chemistry and worked as a chemist before he joined the priesthood. Even if the pope had no knowledge of science whatsoever, would he be wrong to be talking so much about caring for the planet?

No. Caring for the earth is more than just a scientific problem; it’s a moral and theological one as well. We’ve heard this argument over and over again from the Vatican, and we’ll see it again in the upcoming encyclical, which we’ve recently learned is going to be titled “Laudato Sii” (Praised be), after a line from St. Francis’ Canticle of Creatures.

But what does this mean? What does it mean that caring for the earth is the same as caring for the “least of these”? What does that have to do with us?

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It means that the poor are often the most affected by climate change. They are the ones who can’t afford food when it gets more expensive. Who can’t afford to take off work when the temperatures are too hot or too cold, or to have air conditioning or central heating in their homes. And it’s not just the poor, it’s children. Children are more likely to be affected by environmental toxins, even before they’re born. And children are less able to cope with high levels of pollution in the air and water.

If you’re in doubt, just look at the stories in the news lately. Almost 2,500 people have died in India this summer because of one of the worst heat waves the world has ever seen. The people who are dying are not the people who can afford cars or who work in air conditioned offices. They are the poor farm laborers, who earn less than $3 a day and have to go to work, no matter what the weather. Their deaths could have been preventable. “All they need to do is follow basic precautions like avoiding working in the sun,” one doctor says. “What can we do? It’s a problem of poverty.”

In the New York Times last Sunday, one reporter writes about his son’s struggle with severe asthma while they were living in New Delhi and his eventual decision to leave the country because of the high levels of air pollution. “Pollution can lower children’s I.Q., hurt their test scores and increase the risks of autism, epilepsy, diabetes and even adult-onset diseases like multiple sclerosis,” he says.

But the news isn’t all doom and gloom. Other organizations are showing how tackling these issues can make a huge difference in the lives of the poor, even within individual communities. Take, for example, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, who recently started an urban gardening program that hires local people who have no other source of income. Titled NanoFarms, this program has allowed many to stay in their homes and neighborhoods in an area where prices are rising rapidly due to gentrification. Brendon Ford, the regional manager for the area, describes the program’s importance by saying: “We have to take care of the poorest among us. And (one way) to do that is to tackle the issue: Why do people not have money? Why are they not having the jobs that they need? And I think what NanoFarms is doing, it’s finding a solution to people without jobs.”

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There are similar environmental programs around the country that work to empower those who need it the most. The Urban Resources Initiative, in New Haven, CT, hires urban high-schoolers and ex-offenders to plant trees. St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, in Lewiston, ME, works within its community by offering community gardens for low-income families and programs that teach people nutrition, cooking, and leadership skills. Alternatives for Community and Environment, in Boston, works to educate people in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods about activism and environmental justice. Members have joined together to improve waste disposal regulations in the area, clean up dump sites, and stop the development of a diesel power plant next to a public elementary school. And these are only a few examples: Programs around the country are linking saving the environment to ending hunger and empowering those without a voice in their communities.

So, no, Mr. Santorum, climate change is not just for the scientists. It’s for the children affected by air pollution. The farmers dying of heat stroke. The ex-offenders and immigrants and young adults who are learning to have a voice (and an income!) through caring for the planet. They are who we work for—and with—when we seek to end climate change.

Photo: Flickr cc via DFID-UK Department for International Development