The touchy topic of climate change is heating up after Pope Francis’ release of a groundbreaking encyclical last month.

In the letter, which Pope Francis described as a “dialogue with all people about our common home,” he states that climate change is not only real, but getting worse and it’s up to everyone to make profound changes in their lives to address the problem.

“If present trends continue,” Pope Francis said, “this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

Some members of the Church of St. Mary’s in Alexandria are taking Pope Francis’ words to heart.

A core group of seven to nine parishioners on the St. Mary’s Committee for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), along with Father Steve Binsfeld, are stepping up their efforts to get the pope’s message out.

They asked for an interview with the newspaper, plan to write a commentary and hope to work with other churches on addressing climate change.

Committee members Ken Howell and Rita von Holtum, and Father Binsfeld noted that the committee formed about seven years ago and has worked on educating parishioners about a variety of issues – immigration, human trafficking, poverty, prejudice and more.

The committee has focused on the environment before, but the encyclical, they said, is a stimulus to move the topic forward.

St. Mary’s, in its own way, is trying to be more environmentally conscious, said Howell and von Holtum. The church is developing a plan to use more energy efficient LED lighting, reduce Styrofoam use, and is reviewing its heating and cooling systems.

Education and awareness are essential in changing the way humans are damaging the Earth, Father Binsfeld said. He quoted Pope Francis: “Change is impossible without motivation and a process of education.” The encyclical notes that all educational sectors should be involved – at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere.”

The encyclical states that environmental education can change daily habits, prompting people to reduce water consumption, sort waste and turn off unnecessary lights. “An integral ecology is … made up of simple daily gestures which break the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” the encyclical notes.

Another one of the encyclical’s main points that struck the committee members is that climate change disproportionately affects the poor. They live in areas especially impacted by global warming and their way of life – fishing, agriculture and forestry – is at risk. Pope Francis said the world has a social debt toward the poor because they’re being denied the right to live a dignified life.

When asked whether churches should get involved in the scientific debate over global warming, Howell, von Holtum and Father Binsfeld repeated Pope Francis’ message that it’s not just a scientific, political or environmental issue, but a moral one – a misuse of creation – that affects everyone.

Father Binsfeld said that major institutions such as the church should give voice to Pope Francis’ new paradigm of justice, an ecology that, according to the encyclical, “respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.”

The encyclical pointed out that churches should not view science as an enemy, Father Binsfeld said, but rather as a friend. “Science helps us understand. Faith informs us how we use science,” he said.

The encyclical’s goals are a tall order – changing society’s “throwaway” lifestyle, motivating people to make environmentally conscious choices, and transforming the political landscape to make lasting changes, but Howell, von Holtum and Father Binsfeld believe it is possible.

“Pope Francis is optimistic,” Father Binsfeld said. “There is hope that our human family can turn this around.”

Father Binsfeld quoted a passage from another one of Pope Francis’ encyclicals, The Joy of the Gospel: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

FIVE THINGS

TO KNOW

An article in Time Magazine summarized the five most important points of Pope Francis’ Climate Change Encyclical:

Climate change is real and it’s getting worse.

2 Human beings are a major contributor to climate change.

3 Climate change disproportionately affects the poor.

4 We can and must make things better.

5 Individuals can help, but politicians lead the charge.

The author was Christopher Hale, executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and co-founder of Millennial.