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Pope to Copenhagen: Saving Environment as Crucial as Fighting Terrorism

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Benedict XVI's message for the Catholic Church's annual World Day of Peace on Jan. 1 does not mention the Copenhagen Climate Summit by name, but the target audience could not have been more obvious, nor the framing of his appeal more loaded for both foes and critics of global warming.

At the very top of the 3,800-word document, titled "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation," the pope says the preservation of "creation"-- that is, the natural environment that is a gift from God --"has now become essential for the pacific coexistence of mankind."
"Man's inhumanity to man has given rise to numerous threats to peace and to authentic and integral human development -- wars, international and regional conflicts, acts of terrorism, and violations of human rights. Yet no less troubling are the threats arising from the neglect -- if not downright misuse -- of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us."
That's a powerful linkage, and as Vatican-watcher John Allen noted, the title of the document was a deliberate play on the motto of Benedict's predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who said "If you want peace, work for justice."

The framework of "environmental protection-as-security issue" is not one you'll see either side in the climate wars citing very often, though it could have appeal to neo-cons who tend to be global warming skeptics. Unfortunately, they will likely be put off by other aspects of the document.

For example, Benedict takes climate change and its human-based causes as fact, and his message clearly reinforces his growing reputation as the "green pope" who presents sharp challenges to those who do not support efforts to curb greenhouse gases and sweeping measures to protect rain forests and other natural resources.

He argues, for instance, that economic development must include safeguards for the environment, even if they are costly, and he calls for "a world-wide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them." Moreover, "technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency."

Solar power is crucial to averting environmental catastrophe and developing a just world, Benedict writes, while nations must also work for "progressive disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons."

Pope Benedict's message was released on Dec. 15, ahead of what will be the Catholic Church's 43rd World Day of Peace on New Year's Day. Paul VI started the Jan. 1 event in 1967 and popes have highlighted various themes related to world peace, with environmentalism increasingly emerging as a topic of papal concern, especially under Benedict.

The current pope had solar panels installed on the roof of the main Vatican audience hall, for example, and he has pledged to make Vatican City Europe's first carbon-neutral state. Last year a Catholic author collected the pope's eco-speeches into a book, "Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks Out for Creation and Justice." And this month Benedict was ranked No. 17 in Foreign Policy's list of the "Top 100 Global Thinkers" from 2009 in part because "he has positioned the church prominently and unexpectedly as an advocate for the environment and warned against the perils of climate change."

Benedict is hardly alone in his concerns, nor the first to be so forthright. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians, has become known as the "green patriarch" for his activism on behalf of the environment. And many religious groups are making their voices heard at Copenhagen. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was there, as was Nobel laureate and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Back home in the United States, however, many skeptics -- faith-based and otherwise -- remain unconvinced. As Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council noted in a blog post, "Climate Talks Blow More Hot Air," Americans overall are increasingly suspicious of claims that the earth is warming or that humans have anything to do with it if it is heating up.

Yet because of his reputation for orthodoxy and conservatism, Pope Benedict's World Peace Day message could have special resonance as folks on the political right tend to pay attention to his statements. The problem is that few may even hear about the environmental document since so far it has received scant attention from the blogs and publications that normally trumpet any papal statement.

That is too bad, as climate critics could find much to like if they read Benedict's text in its entirety.

It is a call for individual conversion, and its appeals for adopting more "sober lifestyles" and for personal sacrifices as the heart of true environmentalism are classically conservative themes. As the pontiff writes: "Humanity needs a profound cultural renewal; it needs to rediscover those values which can serve as the solid basis for building a brighter future for all. Our present crises -- be they economic, food-related, environmental or social -- are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated. They require us to rethink the path which we are travelling together. Specifically, they call for a lifestyle marked by sobriety and solidarity, with new rules and forms of engagement, one which focuses confidently and courageously on strategies that actually work, while decisively rejecting those that have failed."

Sounds pretty palatable to values voters -- as does his insistently pro-life focus on "the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition" as undergirding a "human ecology" that is the basis for environmentalism. "The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others." He also takes a swipe at environmentalism that abolishes "the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings" and opens the way "to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism."

Of course, with the Copenhagen climate meeting wrapping up Friday, Benedict's message may be too late to change many minds -- much less improve the odds of the conference producing anything of substance. But climate change will be with us for a long time, and whether you believe global warming is caused by man or by chance, Benedict and other religious leaders give plenty of reasons to begin changing ourselves and our societies before it's too late.
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