While it shouldn’t happen anymore, I still am still surprised by synchronicity. Last November, I was surprised once again.
Centered around a very powerful conference that our organization
helped sponsor (along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Environmental Justice Program and Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies), a dovetailing occurred. It began with a bishop from the South Pacific and a bishop from the arctic cold of Fairbanks, Alaska. Bishop Bernard Unabali’s blunt assessment of those who are not convinced of climate change despite the evidence he is dealing with today was seconded later by Bishop Kettler’s homily about the impacts of climate change in his diocese of Fairbanks. Oh, and epic droughts, a doracho, Superstorm Sandy, hottest year ever in the US…Let me explain.
Months in the planning, the November 8-10, 2012 scholars’ conference
held on CUA’s campus explored the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI on the environment and climate change. Twelve top theologians from around the country came to share Catholic theological and ethical perspectives on the themes of the natural and human environments; on solidarity, justice, poverty and the common good; on the sacramentality of creation; and on putting our Catholic faith in action on these important issues. (A book about the conference will be available in the summer from Lexington Press.)
Opening the event with a keynote address was Most Reverend Bernard Unabali of the Diocese of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. We invited Bishop Unabali because of his on-the-ground experiences helping to relocate the Carteret Islanders, some of the world’s first climate refugees. When asked about his thoughts on climate change, he said that some of his fellow PNG bishops think that it is, “bull***t.” It was a little jarring—and perhaps a little satisfying—to hear a bishop use such technical yet descriptive language. He continued (and I’m paraphrasing): “I don’t think it is bull***t. I think it is real not just because the scientists say so, but because we are experiencing it. And not only the low-lying atoll of the Carteret Islands but even the mainland of Bougainville is experiencing the effects of climate change through coastal erosion and changing weather patterns.”
While some of us joked about the colorful term used by the good bishop, his stories were nothing to laugh about. The 3,500 or so islanders—and many other island dwellers in the Pacific region—are forced to relocate because of the effects of climate change including rising sea levels, stronger storms, coral bleaching and erratic weather.
During mass the next day, Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks said in his homily that thousands of miles north of the Carteret Islands, climate impacts are also being felt. While he encouraged the work of the scholars and those of us who study, educate and organize within the Catholic community on the issue of climate change, he also felt compelled to share his own stories of climate refugees, raising up the example of the village of Newtok on the Bering Sea in western Alaska. Because of warming temperatures (the polar regions are experiencing far greater increases in annual temperatures than in other regions), ice is failing to form soon enough in the early fall to hold winter storms at bay. Newtok, located just above sea level, is now frequently inundated by storm surge. In rugged rural Alaska, seawalls are not an option so the entire village must relocate to higher ground. Thus we learned that climate refugees are not just a phenomenon of low-lying developing nations, but that there are refugees even in our own country.
Adding to the synchronicity was the fact that the conference came within two weeks of the largest (in size) hurricane ever recorded bashing the East Coast of the U.S., Superstorm Sandy, leaving millions without power and hundreds of thousands seeking temporary shelter, food and water. This conference, it seemed to me, was perhaps the first time that I was involved in a meeting focused on climate change where it didn’t take a concerted effort to get people to connect the dots.
Since founding the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change in 2006, I have been convinced that the work of encouraging the Catholic community to embrace notions of stewardship, sustainability and solidarity in the face of climate change was going to be an uphill battle. Because climate change is complicated to both understand and solve, because it is still so politically charged, and because its impacts play out over an extended period of time, fulfilling the mission of the Coalition—to share the Church’s teaching on and engage Catholics more fully in the issue of climate change—has been challenging, at best. But with the hottest year ever recorded in the continental U.S., with the extensive and devastating drought throughout the center of the country, with massive wildfires in the west and the severity of other storms, maybe we are finally at a place where people are paying attention. Polls seem to bear it out.
A September 2012 poll from Yale shows that 70% of Americans now believe climate change is real, up 13% since January of 2010. Over 70% believe that climate change is impacting our weather, and this was before Sandy. Unfortunately, the level of intensity for doing something about it is not as strong as other, more pressing concerns (e.g., the economy, immigration).
Nevertheless, I am heartened by these shifts in attitudes but even more so by the work being done not just by our modest organization but by our partners and by thousands of Catholics around the U.S. We believe we have a good framework to complement these actions through our Catholic Climate Covenant campaign.
At the heart of this campaign is the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor
. Linking Creation and poverty is intentional: Catholics are not only concerned about Creation, but also about those most impacted by a compromised environment: the poor and vulnerable people in the U.S. and around the world. And who better embodies this dual concern than St. Francis, everyone’s favorite saint?
The Pledge asks Catholic individuals, families, parishes, schools and others to do five things:
To PRAY and reflect on the duty to care for God’s Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable.
To LEARN about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change.
To ASSESS how we-as individuals and in our families, parishes and other affiliations-contribute to climate change by our own energy use, consumption, waste, etc.
To ACT to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change.
To ADVOCATE for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.
Over 8,000 pledges have been registered on our website so far and we suspect that many more people, schools, parishes and other organizations have taken the pledge but have not registered it on our website.
And our partners
—from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to Catholic Relief Services and from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference to the Franciscan Action Network—are all stepping up to the plate to find innovative ways to share the good news of Catholic teaching on the environment with their constituents.
We believe we have a wonderful array of tools and programs
to assist the Catholic community to recapture what was once a strong part of our Catholic tradition: to see that all of Creation is a manifestation of the Incarnation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. John 1:1,3.
If this is truly so, then how can we put at odds human “progress” with care for God’s Creation? Every decision we make can be a choice: a choice to further erode the common good and the life systems necessary for the integrity of the planet; or a choice to promote a sustainable Earth and a choice mindful of the common good, not just our individual good.
So for the sake of the islanders from the Carterets and Staten, for the sake of the villagers in Newtok and Bankok, for the sake of the polar bear and the undiscovered plant species, and for the sake of true human flourishing—a flourishing that embraces and celebrates the connections between our existence and the existence of all that encompasses the living organism of Earth—please join with us in taking the St. Francis Pledge and in sharing your good news with us.