Can The Pope’s Environmental Push Create A Surge Of Environmentalism In America’s Catholics?

Would Jesus drive an electric car?

Can The Pope’s Environmental Push Create A Surge Of Environmentalism In America’s Catholics?
[All Photos: enzodebernardo via Shutterstock]

Pope Francis’s much-anticipated papal letter to bishops of the Roman Catholic Church cited the moral obligation of “every person living on this planet” to confront global warming and lamenting the “irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed” the natural environment. Francis’ pronouncement comes in advance of a high-stakes UN Climate Change Conference this winter and he has called on global leaders to come to an agreement to address environmental crisis. Will this mean a sudden new surge of support for climate change solutions from America’s Catholics?


Religion and the environment may seem like an odd couple but researchers, congregations and companies are all beginning to look through this lens for new ideas. For companies and investors, the Pope’s call for all people to do their part to tackle climate change could mean a new segment of consumers with an appetite for sustainable products and services.

This new audience could be massive: . Catholics represent 1.2 billion people globally. Catholic schools, seminaries and universities will be expected to teach to the encyclical, which could drive a widespread elevation of environmental moral teachings. A recent study from Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication found that 7 out of 10 American Catholics already believe that climate change is real, but only 5 or 6% answered that it is a major religious or spiritual issue. The Pope’s letter may change this.

There is a small foundation of environmentally inclined Christians that the Pope’s letter could help mobilize. The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology has explored world religions and the environment since the 1990s. Program directors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim even host podcasts, conferences and videos discussing religious values and planetary health.

A campaign initiated in the early 2000s by Washington-based Evangelical Environmental Network and Creation Care magazine asked this very question, instructing its followers that climate change–and thus, transportation–is a moral issue. The campaign aired a series of commercials in 2002 in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and North Carolina urging Christians to preserve the environment by giving up their gas-guzzling SUVs, minivans, and pickups.

More recently, congregations have begun to take action as well. Interfaith Power & Light, an organization that works to engage congregations and educate people of faith about the moral and ethical mandate to address global warming, has put forth the “Paris Pledge” for signatories to cut emissions from their own facilities and homes in half by 2030 toward being 100% carbon neutral by 2050. Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater Minnesota has a G3 program (Go Green with God) featuring a low-carbon diet calculator, green buying guides, and references for solar and wind energy providers. Could this encourage more utilities to procure renewable power in areas like the South and Midwest, where states have been slow to phase out coal?

Companies have recently taken notice of this new audience. At a cleantech event this May in Silicon Valley, an executive from Silver Spring Networks–a smart grid technology provider –outlined the company’s efforts to reach new markets through the faithful. The company has formed an official partnership with the National Council of Churches and The National Religious Partnership for the Environment to provide a toolkit for educating congregants on the benefits of emerging technologies in protecting the environment. Lisa Magnuson, VP of Global Marketing for Silver Spring, said, “If you can educate third party advocates they can educate their peers.”


But what this all translates into, as Francis said, is each person doing their part. The cultural norms that impact the way we live our daily lives–what we drive, what we consume–is what will have the scaled impact needed to avert climate disaster. Pope Francis’ encyclical is a significant mile marker on the way to making sustainability more mainstream.
What is needed, Francis says, is a “bold cultural revolution.”

About the author

Emily Chan is a sustainability strategist working with Fortune 500 companies. She is an Advisory Board member at SXSW Eco and formerly wrote the green careers column for The Muse.