The school pupils of 2017 will grow up and mature in a very different world from their parents'. Evidence abounds that their world will be less safe, more unstable and a riskier place than in the recent past. But an additional new threat is imminent. As a result of the apathy of the current generation, and in the absence of radical measures and informed political leadership, the world will now also face the bleak prospect of coping with dangerous climate change as today's children become tomorrow's parents. New health problems, freshwater shortages, deadly heatwaves, massive population displacement, flooding, large-scale loss of plant and animal species, drought and food shortages - these are the likely legacies of the misuse of what Pope Francis refers to as 'Our Common Home'.
Education, therefore, has to equip today's children to cope with living on a damaged planet where risks are multiplied by a rapidly changing climate.
Lest we think we are immune, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves that everywhere on this small island is already 0.5°C warmer than in our parents' time, and that can be seen in recent extreme windstorms, rainfall and flooding events. Indeed, this island contributes more than its fair share to the global problem and shoulders fewer of its responsibilities than most.
In what is one of the most eloquent documents to address environmental issues in recent years, Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si', has moved the Catholic Church to the forefront of the battle for the planet. In language that is sometimes challenging, sometimes emotional, but always unambiguous and clear, he calls on all of us to respect the integrity of the earth, to stop fouling our common home for short-term benefits, and to stand up to those who would take away the options for sustainability for the next generation. "What kind of world do we want to leave those who come after us, to children that are now growing up?" he asks. Is it reasonable that economic considerations are almost exclusively geared towards individual benefit, to the detriment of the common good, and on unlimited economic growth based on an assumption of an infinite supply of the earth's resources?
The reality is we live in a finite world with complex interconnections between all its component parts. In reviewing the approach of St Francis of Assisi, from whom the Pope took his current name, he emphasises the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and individual wellbeing and happiness. The need for an integrated approach is exemplified by his contention that, "The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation."
Catholic schools are uniquely positioned to educate young people regarding the Pope's message, and the theme for Catholic Schools Week this year (January 29 to February 4) is 'Catholic Schools: learning with Pope Francis to care for our common home'. Resources have been specially prepared for use by teachers, in both parts of Ireland, and various events are planned during this celebration of Catholic education.
There can be few more important objectives for the Irish educational system today than providing a moral compass for our young people. As they embark on a journey into the unknown, an enlightened education offers perhaps the only chance of changing direction if, as Pope Francis says, "future generations of all creatures are to inherit a planet as healthy, beautiful and fruitful as the one this generation has inherited".
Professor John Sweeney, climatologist, Maynooth University, has contributed to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports. He is a member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Justice and Peace