I WAS taken by an article I read that began with this question: Is the issue of climate change the biggest moral issue facing humanity? The author argued that while there are other gigantic moral issues — such as world hunger, economic inequality, militarism, international terrorism and the refugee crisis — they are not universal, while the issue of climate change is.

Given its gravity, it was good to see Pope Francis speak out on climate and justice to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home". While caring for creation is a tenet of Catholic social teaching, what is new is that Pope Francis, in his call for an "ecological conversion", moved environmental protection to the fore.

He said all life depends on clean air and water, and a stable and reliable climate. As a chemist by background and with a team of scientists and an observatory at the Vatican, the Pope is clear that climate change is the greatest threat life on Earth has ever seen — and that it is caused by humans. And, as a priest, he stands in protection and care for his flock, 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, and for all people, especially the poorest.

Perhaps the most important new focus of the papal statement is the relationship between global poverty, catastrophic inequality, and pursuit of the golden calf of consumerism that leads to environmental destruction. The Pope did not stint in his condemnation of worshipping gross national product over human life and health. The poor and marginal are his greatest concern, and they suffer the most from economic and environmental injustice.

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Acknowledging that "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain," Pope Francis accused the international community of not acting enough and called for "honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good".

The term "ecological conscience" has been around for at least 50 years. It is centred in an awareness of our true place as a dependent member of the biotic community. Back in 1968 influential Catholic monk Thomas Merton said, "Man must become fully aware of his dependence on a balance which he is not only free to destroy but which he has already begun to destroy. He must recognise his obligations toward the other members of that vital community".

One who recognises this obligation is former US Vice President Al Gore, the man behind the movies An Inconvenient Truth and now An Inconvenient Sequel. The New Yorker magazine noted that, "Eleven years ago, when An Inconvenient Truth was released, the connection between global warming and extreme weather, though well established in computer models, was difficult to demonstrate in the real world. Today both the causes and the effects of climate change are clearer, and while some people have been harder hit than others, few of us are totally untouched."

Famous naturalist David Attenborough was a longtime sceptic of climate change, but in a BBC documentary in 2006 he came out sounding the alarm. When asked why, he said, "How could I look my grandchildren in the eye and say I knew about this and I did nothing?"

Columban priest Sean McDonagh visited New Zealand 10 years ago with a message that greed, covetousness and other commonly recognised human vices contribute to our present crisis, underpinned by what many people consider is good and desirable — the modern, growth-oriented, industrial model of development. A decade on, has anything changed?

Change begins with each of us and, as an individual response, the ecological conscience challenges us all to live more lightly on Earth and to work for a more just and equitable human community. Otherwise we risk making enormous technological and scientific advances with no equivalent moral and spiritual progress.

While change is incremental, slow and complex, we do have reasons for optimism. For example, last year when shareholders of ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution aimed at shedding light on the impacts of addressing climate change on the company's long-term assets.

Dave Scoullar is a tramper, conservationist and member of the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust