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Pope Francis’ Words to Congress: A Rallying Call for Climate Action

Climate

I find it really interesting how news stories and social media reporting on Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. have responded to his taking a strong stand on climate change. So often, people seem to feel the need to categorize and label one another—by their religion, political stance, gender or profession—as if that should immediately determine the relationship of those people with the natural world.

Pope Francis shakes hands with U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). Pope Francis is the first Pope to ever address a joint meeting of Congress. Photo credit: Caleb Smith / Creative Commons

Surely, we all have many elements of our identities? Does being a mom mean I can’t be an activist? Or does being an economist mean someone can’t speak up for the environment? Definitely not. Faith-based communities are a prime example of people who shouldn’t be pigeonholed, which is why Story of Stuff developed several programs to help Christian and Jewish teenagers explore the relationship between their consumption, their faith and the health of the planet.

This culture of labeling and prejudging people has helped make climate change such a politicized issue in the U.S., to the point where our elected representatives are no longer able to act in a way that their moral compass and human compassion would naturally send them. Pope Francis’ words to Congress today are a rallying call for everybody to set aside partisan politics, and focus instead on what unites us: we all share the same planet, the responsibility for taking care of it and the duty to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. His repeated emphasis on dialogue is a reminder to us all that the problems facing our common home can only be solved through an open and inclusive approach.

I spent many of the most formative years of my life living and working in some of the first places where climate change became a reality, rather than a political platform or belief system. As the Pope reminded us earlier this summer “the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest."

In Bangladesh and India, where I worked with communities being poisoned by toxic pollution, the rising sea levels and extreme heatwaves now threaten the survival of families who often didn’t have very much to begin with. Back home in the U.S. no one understands the devastating effects of human appetite for fossil fuels better than the low income communities being polluted by coal, fracking and oil production, or living in the wake of droughts, wildfires and hurricanes.

One of the main ways we’ll achieve climate justice for all of these communities, is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and use the clean power of the sun, wind and water instead. For those who question whether that’s realistic, a new report out this week shows that a 100 percent renewable-powered planet is totally doable, affordable and could create 20 million new jobs.

Equally important is the need for Congress to give President Obama their support for bold action on climate issues, so that he can go to the international climate talks in Paris this fall with a genuine mandate to lead.

I try to begin every day feeling positive about the work we need to do to protect our planet. Today I feel motivated by the Pope’s declaration that “now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.” This is a challenge to Congress and President Obama to show real courage and move beyond what is politically possible to what is scientifically necessary. And it’s a challenge to all of us to overcome the labeling that seeks to divide us, and focus on what we can achieve together.

To connect and collaborate with people in your area on environmental issues, check out Greenwire.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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