Under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has become a powerful voice for action on climate change, while Catholic leaders from vulnerable countries have emerged as some of the issue’s greatest evangelists. Recently, Cardinal John Ribat of Papua New Guinea, visited the United States to meet with members of Congress about the carbon crisis. During his stay, Cardinal Ribat joined Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and daughter of former vice president Al Gore, to talk the church's role in combatting climate change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Deaton: There are many Christians in the United States who believe that only God can change the weather, and for this reason, they reject the idea that humans can cause climate change. What do you say to people who hold that point of view?
Cardinal John Ribat: In the creation story, God gave the world to us — to till it and also to care for it — and if there are things that need to be corrected, then we do our best. We try our best to really be part of that.
Pope Francis came up with an encyclical to really make the world aware. And when he addressed this to people, he did not address this only to just Catholics. No. He addressed this to the whole of humanity, and this is because this world is created for all of us. We are living on this one planet. For that reason, we are responsible.
Deaton: There has been some research looking at the pope’s encyclical that found that, in some ways, it backfired with conservative Catholics in the United States. It seems like partisanship and ideology are driving a lot of the discussion around climate change. How should faith leaders deal with that?
Karenna Gore: There are always problematic aspects of the marrying of religious and political agendas. In this case, I think that a lot of that is cultural. I think that it’s a matter of being open-minded and open-hearted on allof our parts to understand where people are coming from, but then to unmask where there has been misuse and perversion of the scripture.
To go a little bit deeper, I think we can talk about how stewardship has been interpreted. To be good stewards of the Earth, from the Book of Genesis, is often held up by conservationists within the Christian tradition as a central belief through which we can see that we are called to protect creation, to recognize our oneness with it, to recognize the sacred within the natural world.
It is also frequently cited by [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt, by Donald Trump. It’s been co-opted to mean a license to pillage. And that is not unrelated to what the colonial agenda was. So, I think it goes right back to when the Christian belief system was co-opted by the forces of empire and colonization.
There is a lot of that within the Christian community now. When you see the use of stewardship as a concept meaning that we should continue to dig and burn the fossil fuels within the Earth, it is nothing more than an illusion, and it is not real. There is a human instinct in many cultures to see a separation and a superiority of humanity, and that is a fallacy.
We really believe the solution to climate change lives in a deep exploration of its root causes, which include a theological error of the idea that humanity and nature are separate. We can see very clearly from science that we are connected. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the living beings that are part of our food chain are deeply connected.
Deaton: You mentioned the historic relationship between colonization and the Church. Can you explain that?
Karenna Gore: When we talk about interfaith dialogue and religions, the traditional way of doing often includes only Abrahamic religions — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — and certainly that’s a very robust interfaith dialogue, but then when you add the non-Abrahamic traditions of Hinduism and the Indic traditions, and Buddhism and the East Asian traditions, you often have a very different conversation about whether nature itself is a subject.
Indigenous traditions often hadn’t been included in the category of religion or faith or interfaith dialogue, and the reasons for that are complex, and they’re deserving of a larger discussion. But it’s largely a result of colonization and the view that the papal bulls of the fifteenth century took that indigenous people were part of the flora and fauna of a land, and they were meant to be conquered and subdued in the name of the church.
Deaton: It seems that many former European colonies, including Papua New Guinea, are especially vulnerable to climate change. Cardinal Ribat, why is climate change an urgent issue for your country?
Cardinal John Ribat: The United Nations has defined refugees as people leaving their homes because of danger. People are leaving [Papua New Guinea] not because of danger, but because the island is disappearing. Their home will no longer be there, and that is the difficulty.
We do not come from a continent, and that makes it difficult for us to live comfortably, because we know that, on the island, the sea around us is rising. People dig a well to get their water, but the well is no longer drinking water. It is already salty because of the constant rise of sea level.
Knowing that the United States is pulling out from the Paris Climate Agreement, to us, is really kind of a concern. It is really an issue for all of us, for all nations. It is not an issue only for some. It is for the whole world to come together and see how can we better address this issue of global warming.
This is a call to us now, when we are witnessing a lot of events happening around the world that should make us think, “What have we done?” or “What can we do here?” Of course, God’s help is there all the time for us, and He’s the one who gave us this Earth to live, to till and to care for.
For me, seeing the situation we are in, and just to keep quiet — for me, this is not the way I should live my life.