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A high-profile Vatican conference on climate change offers a glimpse into an expected statement from Pope Francis that could throw the full weight of the Roman Catholic Church into the fight against global warming.
Tuesday's conference featured appearances by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Vatican leaders close to Pope Francis, and representatives of several other faiths in a likely preview of a papal encyclical on the subject.
"Because this is such a high-level meeting, it indicates that people at those levels are very enthusiastic about what Pope Francis is doing here," Dan Misleh, executive director of the US-based Catholic Climate Covenant, told VICE News. "I think it gives them — and a lot of us, frankly — a little bit more hope that we can solve this."
Francis has been outspoken about the need to protect the environment and head off the worst effects of climate change, which are expected to fall disproportionately on the world's poor. He's expected to bring that message to Washington in September, when he's slated to become the first pontiff to address Congress. And he's urged the world's leaders to reach an agreement that will limit warming to a global average of 2 C (3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels, the goal of a UN summit later this year in Paris.
At Tuesday's conference, Ban warned that the world is "far off track" from that goal, and that without changes, warming is likely to top 4 C.
"We have a profound responsibility to the fragile web of life on this Earth, and to this generation and those that will follow," Ban said in remarks carried by the official Vatican news service. "That is why it is so important that the world's faith groups are clear on this issue — and in harmony with science."
Misleh said one of the things that a papal encyclical can make clear to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics is that the issue "is not just about saving polar bears."
"This is about making sure people can live in human dignity," he said. "We need to step up and begin to address that both in terms of reducing our own carbon footprint, as well as remembering they're the ones who are under that footprint."
And an encyclical is among the most authoritative documents a pope can issue — and that could make it harder for Catholic politicians to avoid the subject, said Father James Martin, editor-at-large of the Catholic magazine America.
"That's going to be very difficult for people to rebut," Martin told VICE News. "You might say, 'I don't agree with this,' but you cannot say 'This has no authority.' You just can't. That's what's going to be the difficulty for people. And from what I'm hearing, it will be long and comprehensive."
Of course, the church in America includes plenty of officeholders who don't toe the Vatican line on other issues, particularly abortion rights. But for Catholics who oppose climate action, the papal statement "will be an invitation for them to think of it in a new way," Martin said.
"It moves it further and further away from a fringy issue and further and further away from something that people can ignore," he said.
Both Misleh and Martin said they expect the papal encyclical — a papal letter that lays out the position of the church — to drop by June. Martin predicted that Francis—who takes his name from the patron saint of animals and the environment—will put his personal stamp on the document.
"He will provide it with religious and spiritual underpinnings that I think have been largely lacking in the conversation," he said. "It is not simply what we must do for future generations and what we must do in order to maintain economic growth, it is what we must do because of our relationship with God and with one another, which I think is a huge addition."
Observers got a preview in March, when a top papal adviser told bishops in Ireland that Francis wants to bring "the warmth of hope" to the sometimes bitter debate on the issue.
Citing the book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden with instructions to "till it and keep it," Cardinal Peter Turkson said Francis "is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little." Turkson, who leads the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, linked economic inequality and environmental destruction as "the greatest threats we face as a human family today," and said the church wants to see "authentic and sustainable" human development.
The church has embraced the scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is driving a buildup of carbon emissions that are trapping heat in the atmosphere. But Turkson added, "For the Christian, to care for God's ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change."
The phenomenon may be accepted by most scientists, but it remains politically controversial in many quarters. In the United States, many leading conservative Catholic officeholders are solidly against any steps to reduce emissions. House Speaker John Boehner has ducked the issue, while Republican presidential hopefuls like Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal have dismissed it altogether.
The conservative lobbying group the Heartland Institute, one of the most outspoken critics of emissions cuts, even dispatched representatives to Rome to criticize the Vatican conference and said cutting fossil fuel use would be "profoundly anti-poor and anti-life."
"Global warming alarmists invariably support population control to reduce human consumption of energy and natural resources," the organization wrote on its website. "They want to make energy more expensive to discourage its use, even though this punishes the poor, women, and children who benefit most from affordable energy."
But Misleh said a call to action from Francis could mobilize support for climate action across denominations and make it harder for climate action opponents to buck the trend.
"I think they're going to feel a little bit of pressure to begin to come up with concrete plans on how we deal with the amount of carbon we're putting into the atmosphere," he said. "I think that's going to hopefully help them think that through a little bit more and begin to try to find ways to address it."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl