Face to face with Pope Francis: A reminder of why we must fight inequality and injustice everywhere

Fred Krupp

It was one of those rare moments in life that crystallize your sense of purpose, at a most critical time.

We were in Rome at the Fortune-Time Global Forum, a gathering of business leaders tasked with brainstorming ways to help the world’s poor. My job had been to lead a discussion about concrete actions companies can take to expand affordable clean energy and to shield impoverished communities from the worst impacts of climate change – and now I was in the Vatican, in line to meet with Pope Francis himself.

I felt humbled to be in his presence. People greeted him in different ways; I just clasped his hand with both of mine and thanked him for his leadership on climate change. It’s clear the issue moves him greatly, and his global platform championing solutions has been invaluable.

I had seen from afar how the pope is able to move people toward a greater awareness of our common bonds, and toward a deeper resolve to confront inequality, injustice and suffering. Now, in his presence, that is exactly where he moved me.

The human dimension of clean air and water

Our presence in the room was a sign of hope, he told forum participants, because “it shows that you recognize the issues before us and the imperative to act decisively.”

In the context of my work at Environmental Defense Fund, this means trying to improve the human condition by standing up for cleaner air and water, public health, a stable climate, and sustainable stewardship of the resources on which all life depends.

At a time when a new White House administration is threatening to withdraw from global climate action and dismantle environmental protections that benefit all lives, including the poor, we will approach the human dimension and moral underpinning of our work with renewed purpose.

We have an obligation, as human beings, to meet the challenge of climate change and avert catastrophic impacts that will disproportionately affect those least able to protect themselves.

It’s why we’re:

  • fighting to replace the lead pipes in Flint and beyond that deliver water and pose potential health risks to up to 10 million homes nationwide.
  • pushing sharp reductions in dangerous pollution around our nation’s ports.
  • creating innovative solutions to bring new, cleaner equipment and smarter technologies to the Port of Houston and other ports around the country.
  • using cutting-edge sensor technology to measure and address localized air pollution.

These and other efforts are focused on communities that have suffered painful legacies of environmental injustice, a reality that is unacceptable regardless of where one lives. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

How we get results

At EDF, we’re committed to being as diverse and vibrant – in our people, our values and our work – as the communities we serve. We must recognize that being a force for good in the world also means heeding the pope’s admonition to listen to, learn from and include the people we seek to help.

Regardless of background or belief, we need to find a way to look people in the eye, to recognize their true needs and priorities, and to roll up our sleeves and collaborate. This ethic guides EDF towards enduring bipartisan alliances and unique partnerships with diverse organizations, some of which don’t fit the conventional mold of an environmental partner. It’s how we get results and broaden the conversation.

As I stood facing Pope Francis on that early December morning, I thought of how critical it is that those who seek solutions and a path forward stand together resolutely. 

Listening to the pope, it struck me that his diagnosis of the unrest and inequality in the world comes with a hopeful plea that humans be guided by the better angels of our nature – not by the dark forces of hatred, discrimination and exclusion. 

His prescription is exactly what the United States and the world needs now: a call for benevolence and compassion, and for lifting people up rather than tearing them down.

It’s why millions of people around the world, including non-Catholics like myself, are drawn to and get inspiration from this humble man who is a leader because he’s able to connect the dots between economic prosperity and environmental stewardship – and to propel us to act.