Three months after issuing bold declarations against the negative ramifications of environmental neglect, Pope Francis is set to make his first visit to the United States.
In his second papal encyclical, titled "Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home," Francis, writing to every individual on Earth, warned that humanity is faced with "global environmental deterioration," and said climate change "represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day." The encyclical is a letter addressed to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.
"Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain," Francis wrote. "We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth."
According to Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean emeritus of the faculty of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Francis' stance on climate change is important because it is a "crushing issue for society in general."
"[Pope Francis] wants to make sure we don't ignore what he regards as the most pressing moral and spiritual issue of our time," Irwin told AccuWeather.
While on his six-day stop, which lasts from Sept. 22 to Sept. 27, in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, Francis is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he could discuss climate change further, according to Irwin.
After the encyclical was released, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sided with the pope's stance and called for swift action to address climate change. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, the U.N.'s World Climate Summit will take place in Paris. Ahead of the summit, the pope has urged the U.N. to take a "very strong stand" on climate change, Reuters reported.
Since the issuance of the encyclical, a number of different ecumenical leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior bishop of the worldwide Anglican communion, have recognized the pope's initiatives. Recognizing climate change as a moral issue has extended beyond Christianity, with key Islamic experts speaking to the world's 1.6 million Muslims to do more to fight climate change.
"In that sense, the religious community is very much with him," Irwin said.
Referencing a "scientific consensus" that indicates a warming of the climate system, Francis wrote: "In recent decades, this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon."
Francis then said humanity must recognize the need to change lifestyles, productions and consumption to combat human causes of global warming. While he has gained support from other religious leaders, the pope's declarations have received mixed reviews from those who may require a change in lifestyle or a conversion from patterns of behavior, Irwin said.
While his immediate predecessors, including St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, also issued documentation expressing concern for the environment, the call for responsibility has never been to the extent of what Francis has done in his tenure, Irwin said.
Prior to being elected pontiff in 2013, Pope Francis served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and witnessed firsthand what pollution can do to a location if left unaddressed. In 2007, he helped write a document, along with other bishops, addressing the environment and evangelization.
"As archbishop in Buenos Aires, he saw pollution; he saw unemployment; he saw the devastation of the Amazon," Irwin said.
Francis, who has often preached about caring for the needy, believes the harshest burden of climate change is likely to fall on the poor, citing their lack of financial activities or resources that could allow them to adapt to climate change in the encyclical.
"Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades," Francis said. "Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry."
France has addressed climate change and numerous other issues in a way that looks to find solutions and move forward in ways best for everyone, rather than a strict, top-down "these are the rules" approach, Irwin said. The same concern he showed, and experience he gathered as archbishop, now extends to the papacy, he said.
"It's been on his mind as a pastor, looking at his flock and realizing 'this is what they're suffering' and he brings that experience as being an archbishop in an area devastated by pollution and by unemployment," Irwin said.