Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
· Pope addresses climate change conference
· US church leaders lobby Bush on global warming
The Vatican yesterday added its voice to a rising chorus of warnings from churches around the world that climate change and abuse of the environment is against God's will, and that the one billion-strong Catholic church must become far greener.
At a Vatican conference on climate change, Pope Benedict urged bishops, scientists and politicians - including UK environment secretary David Miliband - to "respect creation" while "focusing on the needs of sustainable development".
An Arctic coastline yesterday where the sea is usually still frozen at this time of year. The Vatican has added its voice to concerns over global warming.
The Pope's message follows a series of increasingly strong statements about climate change and the environment, including a warning earlier this year that "disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa".
Observers said yesterday that the Catholic church is no longer split between those who advocate development and those who say the environment is the priority. Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, head of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, said: "For environment ... read Creation. The mastery of man over Creation must not be despotic or senseless. Man must cultivate and safeguard God's Creation."
According to Vatican sources, the present Pope is far more engaged in the green debate than John Paul. In the past year Benedict has spoken strongly on the need to preserve rainforests. In the next few weeks he visits Brazil.
"There is no longer a schism. The new interest in climate change and the environment is not surprising really. Benedict comes out of 1960s Germany, where environment and disarmament were major issues. It's conceivable that his ministry could even culminate in a papal encyclical on the environment," said one analyst. This would be the most powerful signal to the world's Catholics about the need for environmental awareness at every level.
The Catholic church is just one major faith group now rapidly moving environment to the fore of its social teachings. "Climate change, biotechnology, trade justice and pollution are all now being debated at a far higher level by the world's major religions," said Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (Arc).
In some cases the debate is dividing traditionalists from younger congregations. In the US the diverse 50m-strong conservative evangelical churches are increasingly at war about the human contribution to global warming.
Many evangelical leaders say they are still not convinced that global warming is human-induced and have argued that the collapse of the world is inevitable and will herald the second coming of Christ.
But most younger leaders have broken ranks. About four years ago the progressives began to argue strongly that man had a responsibility to steward the earth. Redefining environmentalism as "creation care", they are now lobbying President Bush and the US administration to take global warming far more seriously.
"They are the most effective lobby," said one observer yesterday. "They represent the conservative vote so Bush has to listen to them."
Although the World Council of Churches in Geneva has had a department to investigate climate change since 1990, churches have come late to the debate. "The [environment and religion] is a no-brainer, but we are all only now realising it", said Claire Foster, environmental policy adviser to the Church of England.
Many faiths also realise their potential to influence politicians and financiers. A survey by US bank Citigroup found that the 11 major faiths now embrace 85% of the world's population and are the world's third largest group of financial investors. In the US the United methodist church pension fund alone is worth $12bn-$15bn (£6bn-£7bn). Total investment of US churches is nearly $70bn. Switching to ethical investments would be hugely significant.
One Catholic priest impatient for change is Seán McDonagh, a Columban missionary and author of books on ecology and religion. "The Catholic church's social teaching on human rights and justice has been good, but there has been little concern about the impact on the planet. The church has been caught up on its emphasis on development and on resisting population control, but if we are pro-life we should be banging the drum now about climate change."
Most of the world's mainstream faiths have at their core a deep respect for nature, but over hundreds of years many have developed an ambivalent attitude towards ecology and the pressures put on the earth by humans. Church leaders have largely stayed silent on the extinction of species and natural capital and have concentrated their ethical teachings on the need to relieve human poverty. But the reality of impending climate change and the effects it will have on the poor is concentrating minds and causing many to fundamentally reassess their understanding of man's place in the world.
John Vidal and Tom Kington in Rome
Friday April 27, 2007