A top Vatican official yesterday offered a blistering critique of the industrial world's energy consumption and called for urgent action on climate change.

"The ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the earth's delicate ecological balance on almost unfathomable scale," Cardinal Peter Turkson warned a Vatican audience that included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"In our recklessness, we are traversing some of the planet's most fundamental natural boundaries," he said.

Turkson serves as the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and he has taken a lead role in crafting Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on climate change. His statements on the topic have been viewed as a preview of what the pope will say in the much-anticipated document, which will be the first high-level papal directive to focus exclusively on environmental issues.

Speeches from Turkson and Ban anchored the daylong Vatican workshop, titled, "Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity." The conference, which drew a high-level mix of scientists, diplomats and religious leaders, sets the table before Francis' encyclical by framing climate change as a moral crisis that threatens the world's poor.

Turkson said a combination of more conservation-minded policies, "innovated and sustainable technological solutions," and "brave" leadership will help curb global carbon dioxide emissions, and put pressure on industrialized nations like the United States to reverse the trend of a warming planet.

"The wealthiest countries, the ones who have benefited most from fossil fuels, are morally obligated to push forward and find solutions to climate-related change and so protect the environment and human life," Turkson said. "They are obligated both to reduce their own carbon emissions and to help protect poorer countries from the disasters caused or exacerbated by the excesses of industrialization."

Skeptics say pope will 'confuse' Catholics
Francis—along with many other global observers—has identified December's U.N. climate negotiations in Paris, where nations are expected to sign a new global accord, as a key test of whether those reductions will begin to take shape.

"The meeting in Peru was not such a great thing; it disappointed me, and there was a lack of courage," the pontiff told reporters earlier this year, referring to the most recent round of climate talks. "Let's hope that at Paris they will be more courageous and that the representatives can go forward on that" (ClimateWire, Jan. 30).

Speaking ahead of Turkson at the Vatican summit, Ban said religious leaders can turn the tide on the climate debate.

"Your influence is enormous," he said. "You speak to the heart of humanity's deepest hopes and needs. You can remind us all that we do not exist apart from nature, but are part of a wider creation."

Ban and Francis met one-on-one before the conference. According to the secretary-general's office, "they had an extensive discussion on the issue of climate change. The secretary-general said he very much looked forward to the pope's encyclical on the subject, which would act as moral voice on the issue."

But not everyone is so enthusiastic about Francis' decision to exert his influence on the upcoming climate negotiations.

A delegation of American climate change skeptics traveled to Vatican City to counter-program the pope and secretary-general and warn that curbing fossil fuel consumption would be more harmful to the world's poor than the effects of climate change (ClimateWire, April 27).

"With the pope coming out with such strong statements on global warming and endorsing a U.N. treaty ... the Vatican is essentially going to confuse Catholics into thinking that their positions on man-made global warming fears are now an article of faith," said Marc Morano, who runs a website, Climate Depot, that questions climate change science and policies.

Preparing a more user-friendly encyclical
While climate change is not exactly a part of the Nicene Creed—a list of core Catholic beliefs—Turkson argued that care for the environment is a central tenet of Christianity.

Pointing out that in Genesis, God "charges us to till the earth and to keep it," Turkson said, "It is blatantly clear that we have 'tilled too much' and 'kept too little.' Our relationship with the Creator; with our neighbor, especially the poor; and with the environment has become fundamentally 'unkept.'"

The conference drew broad praise from climate change activists.

"I think the pope's aggressive advocacy for a much stronger and more coherent climate policy is very important," former Sen. Tim Wirth, now vice chairman of the United Nations Foundation, said in a statement to ClimateWire.

"He is part of increasing global momentum, and has taken a wonderful leadership role. I hope the Congress holds a hearing on the pope's decisions and policy. Further spreading knowledge and discussion of the pope's thinking would be helpful to everyone," he said.

Dan Misleh, the executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, said he hopes world leaders feel the pressure, too.

"I think what the pope is trying to do here is remind the negotiators that there are people around the world who are being impacted by the current dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," he said.

Still, Misleh said the Catholic community is the ultimate target audience of this summer's encyclical. He said his group is working to make sure that, unlike most papal encyclicals, the dense, academic document reaches a wide audience. Misleh said the organization is putting together resources for priests to use when drafting homilies, among other steps.

Pointing out that St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both highlighted environmental issues during their tenures, Misleh said that "the message is probably not going to be much different."

What is different, he conceded, is the growing global popularity and authority that Francis has gathered during his two years at the helm of the Catholic Church. "That brings with it a significant amount of moral authority," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500