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Hope and Scandal: This Week in Climate News

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Sep 24, 2015 9:26:00 AM

Progress and setbacks for climate action are coming from the most unexpected places.

Pope Francis continues to inspire the world with his infectious love for life. His unadulterated joy and authentic humility transcends the common human experience, arguably making him the most galvanizing spiritual leader since Gandhi.

His advocacy for climate action makes him an invaluable player in consensus-making and, hopefully, the development of a viable global plan to reduce emissions and develop a sustainable international economy.

For Pope Francis, climate action isn’t about political positioning or economic gain. From his sanctified perspective, taking care of the planet—and each other—is a moral imperative, a duty, and an honor.

The Pope’s stance on climate change (clearly outlined in the encyclical that he released this summer) goes like this: it’s real, it’s caused by people, and there is copious science to prove it.

Francis denounces deniers, particularly those with economic or political power that place profits over the environment. In fact, he believes that excessive capitalism is the root of the problem, and he has unabashedly criticized global consumerism, claiming that our throwaway culture “reduces things to rubbish” and leads directly to environmental degradation.

As he visits the U.S. this week, he won’t shy away from tackling the hot potato issue of climate action, even if it means ruffling the feathers of some legislators in Congress. He has already praised President Obama for his climate initiatives, including the Clean Power Plan, and he has explicitly entreated Congress to crack down on emissions, develop policy that will reduce the use of fossil fuels, and clear the way for the adoption of renewable energy.

Pope Francis President Obama

President Barack Obama hosts the Pope in the Oval Office of the White House on September 23. Image courtesy of Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty via cnn.com)

It is believed that the Pope’s dedication to climate action has already influenced (and provided political cover for) a small group of 11 GOP House members, who recently introduced a resolution that encouraged conservatives to proactively respond to the financial, health, and national security threats of climate change. The resolution’s language is somewhat flaccid, the statement is non-binding, and 11 is a far cry from the 247-member House Republican caucus, but the call to action is clear, and it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

I’m curious if, during this week’s visit to the U.S., the Pope will make a public statement about the moral obligations of corporations, particularly in light of the recent announcement that one of the stalwarts of corporate sustainability, Volkswagen, violated the EPA’s Clean Air Act by intentionally incorporating “defeat device” software into nearly 500,000 diesel vehicles in the U.S. (11 million worldwide) to circumvent emissions testing for certain air pollutants. It’s estimated that these non-compliant vehicles emit up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide, a primary contributor to toxic smog that causes respiratory disease.

Volkswagen has a long history of (alleged) dedication to the environment, pledging be a leader in “consistent, positive business engagement with policymakers on climate issues.” 

While the former CEO has expressed his deep apologies for breaking the trust of the company’s customers and the public, Volkswagen’s blunder has burst the bubble for companies everywhere trying to create authentic sustainability practices and messages, giving plenty of ammunition to naysayers who believe that corporations are simply giving lip service to sustainability and remain interested only in the single bottom line.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), a member of the group that initially called for the investigation into Volkswagen, summed up the situation nicely: “It is an outrage that VW would take advantage of its consumers by purposely deceiving them on their mileage on diesel vehicles. Has the corporate culture in what is in automobile society shrunk so low that we can’t be upfront when our products are defective or when we are trying to gain competitive advantage?” And I can’t help but wonder, did Volkswagen really think that they could get away with it?

Which brings us back to the teachings of Pope Francis—with regard to both environment and businesses, we have a fundamental obligation to act ethically, carefully, and lovingly. Perhaps if we have the courage to heed Pope Francis’ advice, we can start seeing our problems as possibilities and make better choices that will lead us to an abundant, sustainable future.

How do you think we can effectively implement Pope Francis’ teachings about the environment and business?  Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com  or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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