When Pope Francis addresses the US Congress and the UN General Assembly this week, he will be stepping into a deeply polarised debate around climate change in the US, particularly among Republican Party members.

As the first Latin American Pontiff, Pope Francis’ message has been more concerned with curtailing the global economic order and its effects on the poor and the environment. If recent public history is anything to go by, the new Turnbull leadership may signal a more hopeful alignment with the values espoused in the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

In fact, as recently as June, Malcolm Turnbull spoke at length about the "great weight" we should give to the Pope’s encyclical. “I really would commend everyone to read the Pope's encyclical by the way, in the very early hours of this morning I read about two-thirds of it. And it's a very, very interesting and eloquent document,” he told ABC.

Mr Turnbull went on to speak affectionately about the "global moral leadership" the Pope encapsulates, and his role in providing "global moral leadership" on environmental issues. “Climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one of them, he also - and I say this as a former Water Minister - discusses very thoughtfully the depletion of fresh water supplies and the pollution of fresh water supplies around the world.”

The rush to demonise the Pope’s environmental warnings was spearheaded in Australia by James Grant, a Catholic Priest and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, who issued a press release reassuring Catholics that they “can feel safe in being sceptical about the Pope’s opinion.”

The rush to demonise the Pope’s environmental warnings was spearheaded in Australia by James Grant, a Catholic Priest and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

Despite his well-known Catholic faith, former PM Tony Abbott avoided any serious discussion of the encyclical. It was left to Australian veteran columnist Paul Kelly to point out the obvious that “for Tony Abbott and his Catholic backers this document offers only a relentless repudiation of their ethical framework and policies.”

The inconvenient truth here is that Pope Francis is merely articulating in this encyclical what most people now accept as self-evident – that the excesses of human consumption without proper regard for the planet is having a disastrous impact on the natural environment.

Moreover, the responsible moral path to achieve this is through embracing clean energy over fossil fuels - and transforming how our energy is sourced. Mr Turnbull has articulated similar sentiments himself, such as when he was launching a report on the feasibility of moving to 100 per cent renewable energy in 2010.

Moreover, the responsible moral path to achieve this is through embracing clean energy over fossil fuels - and transforming how our energy is sourced.

“We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet,” he said at the time. “We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency… We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.”

If Malcolm Turnbull is true to his recent words he will view the Pope’s high profile address this week to both the US Congress and the UN General Assembly as an opportunity to make the ground on the road to Paris more fertile for stronger more ambitious global targets, including improving Australia’s currently inadequate policy settings.


  • Victoria McKenzie-McHarg is climate change manager for the Australian Conservation Foundation
  • This article first appeared at SBS Online
  • Photo by Elke Kerr/ACF

Victoria McKenzie-McHarg

Climate stuff, art and my new kitten – love it all! Climate Change Campaign Manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation.