Activists Harness the ‘Francis Effect’ to Demand Action on Climate Change
When Pope Francis visits the United States next week, climate activists hope his presence will help catalyze more Americans—and their political leaders—to get serious about curbing global warming.
Next Wednesday night, a Catholic activist group called Franciscan Action Network plans to lead an overnight, pan-religious vigil for climate action in Washington, D.C, culminating in a rally on the National Mall early Thursday morning.
There, folks will be able to watch on Jumbotrons as Pope Francis speaks before a joint session of Congress.
The address is widely expected to echo themes of his recent papal encyclical on climate change and the environment, which castigated wealthy nations for continuing to burn fossil fuels, resisting a fast transition to renewable energy, and failing to curb climate change’s impact on the world’s poorest people.
Several dozen environmental and faith-based organizations have endorsed the week’s theme of “a moral call to climate justice,” said Lise Van Susteren, a Washington-area psychiatrist, National Wildlife Federation board member, and co-organizer of the rally. “We will have people from the evangelical faith community standing alongside social justice groups. They are not typical partners but have put aside their differences” to send a unanimous message on climate action, she said.
The pope’s moral stand on climate change opened the space for otherwise divergent groups to unite next week during his visit to the U.S., said Van Susteren, and she would like to see it inspire recalcitrant elected officials as well. “The attempt to set aside [climate] realities in the name of political realities becomes ever more difficult when someone of his stature says that this needs to be an essential, defining issue in how we live our lives,” she said.
This “Francis effect” may be working. According to The Guardian, 10 or more Republicans in Congress plan to break with the party next week and sign a declaration affirming that human activities have caused climate change and that the U.S. must respond more strongly.
Four veteran activists will use the pope’s visit to unveil a project that will selectively provide media, legal, and other assistance to people who plan to take direct, nonviolent action to block the use of fossil fuels and thus risk going to jail.
“We’re four people,” said Marla Marcum, of the Climate Disobedience Center, who are “hoping to help people who are ready to take a principled stand, to create clear moral tension that’s very public, to get people to ask themselves which side they’re on.”
The group’s other founders include Tim DeChristopher, who served 21 months in prison after faking $1.8 million in bids at a federal auction of oil and gas leases near the Arches and Canyonlands national parks in 2008; and Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward, who together in 2013 blocked a 40,000-ton coal shipment from reaching a Massachusetts power plant. The district attorney in charge of prosecuting the pair ultimately dropped the charges, saying that their civil disobedience was a warranted response to political inaction on climate change.
“We’re only willing to support people who understand that their action doesn’t end with the action,” said Marcum, who describes herself as a seminary-trained United Methodist pastor and community organizer. “It continues all the way through the trial. We don’t have a problem with mass photo op civil disobedience, but we don’t think people doing those kinds of actions need our help.”
“It’s a level of action that puts decision makers in a position where they actually have to choose,” she added.
Rather than participate in the high-profile climate action events in New York or Washington, Marcum expects to be with a group of community activists in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, on Sept. 27, the day Pope Francis conducts a mass in Philadelphia and then flies back to Rome. They will rally against a five-mile, high-pressure gas pipeline that federal regulators have approved for construction in the neighborhood.
She does not expect any arrest-worthy actions that day. But if construction begins, “I expect that there are folks in that fight who are going to escalate their resistance from rallies and marches to something more disruptive,” Marcum said.