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Opinion: The pope is talking to you, Chicago

With powerful poetic prose and ethical rooting, Pope Francis has called for us to act on climate, lest the poorest suffer the most and we all suffer dire consequences. Should we, here in Chicago, in the bountiful heart of the American Midwest, take note?

We should. As Chicagoans — a biologist and a professor of theology — we know the pope was talking to all of us.

In his much anticipated Encyclical on Ecology and Climate Change, Pope Francis recognizes that human-caused climate change exacerbates poverty, infectious and environmental diseases, food insecurity, water shortages, human conflicts, and war. As a trained chemist, he understands how science can provide valuable information about mankind’s impact on the planet. We are grateful for a world leader with courage, vision and an unfailing moral compass.

In his teaching, the pope calls on Catholics and “people of goodwill” of all faiths to look to the connected between care for the natural world and respect for human dignity.  He reminds us today there are millions of climate refugees who are displaced from their land and livelihoods because of rising sea levels, catastrophic storm events, extended droughts, and/or torrential flooding. He notes that all of Earth’s systems are in decline.

The pope doesn’t talk about Chicago specifically, but it doesn’t take a stretch to see that within our community, we too can see that those who contribute the least to climate change are suffering the most. From the increase in downpours that flood basements, send commuters scurrying, and cast sewage into our rivers, to the asthma-triggering pollution that keeps children home from school and sends health care costs higher, climate change is impacting us here, too. And we, too, must take action.

His encyclical on the environment is a matter of justice and well-being for all. Our consumption of natural resources is at an all-time unsustainable high. If all seven billion people lived like those of us in the United States, we’d require six Earths-worth of land and water to keep up with our lifestyle demands. Americans are among the 20 percent of people who consume 80 percent of the world’s resources.

The good news? We control the planet’s destiny. We can change our trajectory for the better. The pope will call on us to muster the will to do what is right and responsible. Scientists, economists, world leaders, and educated citizens world-wide embrace the urgency at hand. But if we want to change the direction of our impending fate, we must act now.

What can you do? Tread lightly on the Earth. Eat less meat, eliminate disposable goods, reuse everything you can, grow a vegetable garden, compost all of your kitchen and yard waste, recycle, use public transportation, and ride a bike. Don’t stop there.  Go to work, literally. Help your organization go paperless, use reusables rather than disposables, reduce water and electricity consumption, and use the web for virtual national and international meetings whenever possible. These steps, when added up, contribute to a socially responsible movement and social change.

As a city, we, too, can change our behavior. Lester R. Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, reminds us that during World War II President Roosevelt turned to automotive industry leaders and asked them to postpone automobile manufacturing in order to produce thousands of tanks, planes, and ships to defeat Hitler. This seemingly impossible task was completed in less than three years.

Brown envisions using that same infrastructure and political will to build wind turbines and solar panels that could shift us off fossil fuels by as early as 2020. This campaign could create thousands of jobs, delivering cleaner air and water and bringing affordable, reliable electricity to a vibrant economy. The pope will emphasize the seriousness of not acting and implore us to come together with solutions. So please, Catholic or not, consider reading Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and acting.

Pope Francis is challenging us to draw on our moral strengths to turn the tide on planetary destruction. We’re all in!

Nancy C. Tuchman is founding director of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. Michael Schuck is associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago.