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Catholic ‘climate cardinal’ says Florida politicians have duty to act

Cardinal Peter Turkson, Pope Francis’s chief advisor on climate change and considered a contender for next pope, spoke at St. Thomas University on Friday.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, Pope Francis’s chief advisor on climate change and considered a contender for next pope, spoke at St. Thomas University on Friday. Miami Herald Staff

Florida politicians have a duty to address the perils of climate change even if they don’t believe humans are hastening its grave consequences, Pope Francis’ chief advisor on climate change said Friday.

In an interview with the Herald before addressing a conference on climate, nature and society at St. Thomas University law school, Cardinal Peter Turkson said, “Anybody running for public office who sees the life of the people affected by climate-related disasters” needs to act. That, he said, includes the state’s two Republican presidential contenders who remain skeptical of the science tying climate change to increased carbon emissions.

You’ll not be shocked by this. I also know of a cardinal or two who don’t believe.

Cardinal Peter Turkson

“You’ll not be shocked by this,” Turkson added. “I also know of a cardinal or two who don’t believe.”

As president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which also includes St. Thomas human rights professor Roza Pati, Turkson played a critical role in helping Francis draft the historic encyclical released last year. Leading up to the United Nations Paris talks that ended with a global pact to reduce carbon emissions, the manifest put the pope squarely in the middle of the debate, drawing praise for adding his significant influence to the issue and flak for meddling with what critics called a secular topic.

“One letter to me said the pope is about to turn a lie into a doctrine,” said Turkson, who was born in Ghana and, as a member of the Francis’s advisory council, is considered a contender to be the next pope. “It’s not been smooth sailing in all regards.”

While Francis’ encyclical was not the first time the church weighed in on climate change — in a 2009 address to the United Nations, Pope Benedict XVI called for a “responsible stewardship” — Francis’ encyclical laid out a forceful blueprint. Turkson said that about a year before it was released last June, Francis “expressed a desire to develop an encyclical” during a “routine” business meeting.

Turkson said a “small draft” was prepared, from which the 192-page encyclical grew. When asked about what the pope personally added, Turkson said church officials preferred not to talk about how church manifests are composed.

“I’ll be frank. I myself have resisted taking the draft and looking at it,” he said.

The worst suffering will hit the poorest areas, where residents are barely getting by.

Cardinal Peter Turkson

Because the issue was so critical, Turkson said church officials decided it was important to extend their message beyond church borders. Bishops around the world were prepped and coached on how to best answer questions from the media. The encyclical was also released a month before the Vatican hosted a conference for mayors from around the globe pledging to support the U.N.’s sustainable development goals to combat climate change as well as poverty, hunger and inequality.

Turkson said the church is also trying to reduce its own carbon footprint and has met with a solar panel manufacturer in Rome. In April, the Vatican is planning an event to talk about the challenges to creating greener businesses.

The encyclical’s statement on climate change was an early signal that Francis would not be afraid to venture into charged political issues. Most recently, he called Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall along the Mexican border “not Christian.”

In his St. Thomas address, Turkson reminded his Miami audience that the encyclical is meant more as a social contract than climate manifest.

“While those in coastline mansions have the money to move if needed,” he said. “The worst suffering will hit the poorest areas, where residents are barely getting by.”

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