‘Uniquely positioned’ to combat climate change

First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Due to its tradition of caring for the environment, its large numbers and its concern for the human person, the Catholic Church has a unique role to play as the global community grapples with climate change, according to speakers at the ninth annual Peace Symposium, "Care for Creation, Care for Peace: The Link Between Climate Change and Human Security."

Presented by the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission and held at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, the Feb. 21 symposium was punctuated with excitement about Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on the environment, to be released this summer.

The morning event began with Mass, celebrated by Father Gerry Creedon, Peace and Justice Commission chairman, and concelebrated by Father Thomas P. Ferguson, ex-officio of the commission.

Around 120 people braved predictions of snow to attend, and flakes started falling midway through the talks.

The keynote speaker was Daniel Misleh, founding executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, a partnership of 14 national Catholic organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Highlighting some of the most pressing climate issues, Misleh said both urban and rural communities are affected by environmental changes, with the poor and those with "the fewest resources to respond" being especially vulnerable. He showed a map projection indicating that by 2050, regions in Africa may see corn production decrease by 20 to 30 percent.

Misleh gave examples of how climate change can destabilize entire regions.

He said the Arab Spring - a wave of pro-democracy uprisings that have swept some Arab nations since 2011 - was preceded by droughts and fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan. These disasters, influenced by climate change, affected wheat production and dramatically raised the price of bread for countries like Egypt, said Misleh.

"I'm not saying that's the only reason for the Arab Spring," he said. "But it was a factor."

Misleh also warned that climate change can create "climate refugees," those fleeing from temporary or permanent changes to their environment.

But it's not all bad news, said Misleh. From businesses to universities and the military, "people are beginning to think about it seriously," he said.

Misleh said Catholics are "uniquely positioned" to combat climate change. Making up about 22-23 percent of the U.S. population, Misleh estimated the church owns about 70,000 buildings.

"Imagine if those buildings could reduce their energy by 10 percent," he said. "That's turning off lights and computers, just doing simple things.

"If 5 percent of Catholics were active on climate change, we would be three times bigger than the World Wildlife Foundation in this country. … What a footprint we have."

One of the most exciting developments, said Misleh, is Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical.

"Some people are going to gloat and some people are going to grumble at the document," Misleh said. "But it's not going to be a political statement; it's going to be a pastoral document."

He said it will have, however, political, moral, social and economic implications. The pope indicated he hopes the encyclical will influence this year's talks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Typically big powers do all the talking and smaller nations are marginalized at such talks, but the pope is trying to change that dynamic, according to Misleh.

Following a brief question-and-answer period, Walter Grazer, former director of the U.S. bishops' Environmental Justice Program, spoke about the link between environmental changes, security and peace and the need to look at climate change in light of Catholic spirituality and theology.

Grazer said he believes Pope Francis' encyclical will be a continuation of themes expressed by St. John Paul and retired Pope Benedict, but it will be infused with the pope's own distinct spirit.

The final speaker was Marisa Vertrees, former social justice director at St. Charles and faith mobilization manager for the ONE Campaign, an organization that works to end extreme poverty and preventable disease.

Vertrees said we must reorient the way we live in the United States and offered suggestions for lifestyle changes.

Since environmentally harmful emissions come from meat production and transportation, Vertrees said Lent is a fitting time to cut back on meat consumption beyond just Fridays.

Symposium attendee Glenn Willard, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, acknowledged that in the United States, people have trouble changing their ways. "We like all our comforts," he said. The symposium talks were a reminder that making changes on behalf of the environment is "a matter of justice, especially for the poor," he said, adding that it's "not our creation but God's."

Scott can be reached at kscott@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @KScottACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015