Religiously green

September 17, 2007

In the best news for the environment in quite some time, Pope Benedict XVI appears to be enlisting the Vatican in a growing crusade by faith-based organizations to protect nature's handiwork from global warming.

The pontiff has returned frequently to the theme of environmental exploitation in recent speeches, urging young people in particular - "before it's too late" - to make "courageous choices that will re-create a strong alliance between man and Earth."

Pope Benedict's message is most welcome because it will likely require the zeal of a missionary to persuade individuals, businesses and governments to make the sacrifices necessary to reverse practices that may soon cause more damage to the Earth than can ever be repaired.

What's more, the faith of a true believer can be a great comfort when the trend seems so gloomy, such as the recent report that it may already be too late for the world's polar bears, nearly two-thirds of which could be gone by 2050 because of shrinking sea ice.

In speaking out on environmental concerns, such as this year's drought-sparked fires in Italy and Greece, the pope joins a greening-of-the-faithful movement that has been building rapidly among many religious groups, most notably evangelical Christians. Best known for their anti-SUV slogan, "What would Jesus drive?" the evangelical environmentalists also promote limits on smokestack emissions and such energy-saving tactics as switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs.

Pope Benedict has similarly put his environmental concerns into practice by trying to reduce the "carbon footprint" of the Vatican through greater energy efficiency and solar power. Regrettably, though, like former Vice President Al Gore and some Hollywood celebrities, the pontiff has bought into the "carbon neutral" gimmick of planting trees as a purported future offset for greenhouse gas emissions the church is releasing into the air today. Planting trees should be done for its own sake - not as an indulgence to clean the slate of environmental sins.

Even so, religious leaders can be extremely valuable allies in the political battles that changing environmental and energy policy invariably requires. Pope Benedict's exhortations don't rise to the level of an encyclical, but he and other clergy occupy powerful pulpits for educating the world about the dangers of not respecting nature's delicate balance.

"This is not how God wants to wrap up history," Lowell Pritchard, a resource economist for the Evangelical Environmental Network, said of the potentially catastrophic consequences.

Yet it is the responsibility of those given such a wonderland of natural beauty and extraordinary creatures to do what they can to protect it.

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