Catholic Church’s social teaching backs up advocacy on climate change

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Climate change is an issue that not only has appeal to Catholics, but is one for which Catholics have a lot to back them up when they make their pitches to Congress, regulatory agencies or their counterparts at the state level for action on the issue.

Dan Misleh, head of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, said there are several “Catholic assets” Catholics can call upon when pushing lawmakers or regulators for effective climate-change containment policies.

Among them are the church’s size and scope. In the United States, there are 19,000 parishes, 195 dioceses and 63 million members, and organizations such as Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Relief Services. And there is the universal church with its emphasis on serving those in need.

Misleh, speaking Feb. 13 at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, also cited a “Gospel tradition” of discipleship and stewardship, and more than a century of social teaching, including the U.S. bishops’ 2001 statement, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.”

There is also the “human interest” in climate change, Misleh said, noting that “there are actually houses that are crumbling” in Alaska as a result of the permafrost melting. He also pointed to an increase in the number and severity of large-scale weather events and the “mass migration” that results from them — including 400,000 displaced from the New Orleans area and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — as well as vector-borne illnesses.

“Malaria is on the increase where malaria had never been before,” Misleh said.

Environmentalists point out that President George W. Bush reneged on a 2000 campaign pledge to reduce power-plant emissions, and in 2001 withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol that would have committed signatory nations to reducing greenhouse gases to 6 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. The U.S. was a signatory but the treaty has never been ratified by the U.S. Senate.

But federal officials recently called the polar bear a threatened species, noting its habitat was being reduced because of the effects of climate change.

In Canada, the House of Commons passed a bill Feb. 14 that gives the federal government 60 days to detail the measures Canada would take to meet its Kyoto obligations. The Canadian Senate was expected to follow the House of Commons’ lead on the bill. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are 27 percent above 1990 levels.

And Stephane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party, Canada’s main opposition party, had been the nation’s environmental minister before the Conservatives took power last year. Dion has a dog named Kyoto, but greenhouse gases in Canada were not cut during his tenure. It is unclear whether, should Dion become prime minister after some future election, he would use federal power or work through private groups to achieve his environmental aims.

While the U.S. federal government has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue of climate change, most states have taken initiatives — some in tandem with other nearby states — to reduce greenhouse gases and promote alternative fuel sources. The United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s emissions.

Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate change, took note of a 10-state compact by New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and the six New England states to cut greenhouse gases 10 percent by 2019. “It’s a potential model for national policy,” Greenwald said, since it allows states to both cap emissions levels and trade unused emissions to other states in the compact who need more time to meet their caps.

Other states are taking matters into their own hands, according to Greenwald. Illinois wants a 6 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2010. New Mexico aims to reach 2000 greenhouse gas levels by 2010, and cut that amount 10 percent by 2020. California is waging a legal battle against automakers to maintain its right to set vehicle greenhouse gas emission levels. If California prevails, “one-third of our vehicles will be affected,” Greenwald said.

In renewable energy, 23 states and the District of Columbia have set goals for renewable energy, topped by Maine’s goal of 30 percent. Moreover, “more than half the states have climate action plans. Some have more teeth than others,” Greenwald said. “Everybody’s worried about something,” she added, whether it’s water availability in the Southwest, warming in the North or hurricanes in the Southeast.

“There are also a lot of businesses and corporations that are on the right side of the issue,” Greenwald said.

Jeremy Symons, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Global Climate Change Initiative, said a significant shift in public attitudes has taken place on the subject. Even a 2003 poll among the federation’s members had climate change ranked sixth. Today, Symons said, “it’s by far the top issue.”

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