Pope Francis Is Right: We Can’t Make Future Generations Solve Climate Change

If we keep putting it off for our grandchildren to deal with, there will be no turning back.
Pope Francis in New York

A New York City mural dedicated to the Pope's visit in 2015. Photo from Shutterstock.

At the White House on Wednesday, Pope Francis said that climate change is “a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” Well, why not?

It’s an American tradition to hand our worst problems off to future generations. Right from the get-go, the Founding Fathers left it to future legislators to end the horror of slavery. We stockpile radioactive waste that will be a problem for our ancestors for maybe 220,000 years. We drain aquifers in the expectation that future generations can find something besides water to drink. We start a Mideast war with no idea how to end it. Congress doesn’t adequately fund Social Security, because the program won’t run out of money for 20 more years, when other schmucks can raise taxes. Some of us have even arranged for our bodies to be frozen, trusting that future generations will find a way to resurrect us, finally defeating not just taxes, but death itself.

No wonder we teach our children to play “kick the can.” The basic rule is, give the can a mighty kick and then run and hide.

None of us will be here to witness the catastrophes we set in motion.

The strategy makes a certain sense. Future generations can’t vote. Future technologies often offer solutions for problems that baffle us now. Maybe future people will be smarter than we are. And none of us will be here to witness the catastrophes we set in motion. Who can blame risk-averse legislators for playing their version of the old game?

But the Pope insists that climate change be addressed now. What’s so special about this issue?  

Part of the answer comes from scientists. If we don’t put the brakes on climate change now, it probably can’t be stopped. Planetary changes are happening far more quickly than anyone expected. At the current trajectory, the planet is in for a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius, which will bring extreme heat waves, damage agriculture systems, destroy many ecosystems and the plants and animals they support, and raise seas to lethal levels. Worse, according to a recent report by the International Symposium on Climate Change and World Development, “there is an increasing risk that the complex systems driving the climate may pass points of no return.” Then there is no going back to the climatic conditions that nurtured human life on Earth.

The duty to prevent catastrophic climate change is a moral obligation.

Preventing this will be a long, hard slog. The longer we wait, the harder it will be, until it can’t be done at all.

OK. We know this. But why is it our problem to solve?

The answer came from Pope Francis in his address to Congress Thursday. “Do unto others,” he said to a standing ovation, “as you would have others do unto you.”

Destroying God’s creation is not just a pity. It is a sin. The duty to prevent catastrophic climate change is a moral obligation based on the sanctity of all creation and the dignity of all peoplepresent and futureand their equal claim to lives of decency and justice.