Let Us Be Protectors of Creation

Elizabeth Nye, Advocacy Associate
November 5, 2014

A coal plant in Eastgulf, West Virginia. Photo by Magnolia677 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

A coal plant in Eastgulf, West Virginia. Photo by Magnolia677 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

“The Columbans . . . were warning about climate change twenty years before the scientific consensus proved it was happening.” – Columban Mission Magazine, September 2012

For many years now, Columbans throughout the world have responded to ecological crises caused by destructive environmental practices. From the building of an eco-friendly Columban Mission Center house in El Paso, Texas, to participating in an interfaith fast leading up to the UN climate change meetings in Peru this December, Columbans work to aid communities impacted by climate change, and challenge public policies to end our carbon dependence.

On October 20, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach joined representatives of Catholic groups working for environmental justice at a day-long meeting hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The title of the meeting was “Let Us Be Protectors of Creation: Reducing Carbon Pollution to Protect Human Life and Dignity.” Why the focus on carbon pollution? In 2012, carbon dioxide accounted for 82% of all human-caused U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, leading to global warming and climate change.

According to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, human influence on the climate system is clear from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Carbon pollution is linked to the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, drought, flood, and famine, most of which impacts poor and marginalized communities. Catholics are called to protect and preserve God’s Creation, and uphold the dignity of life for all individuals. If we are truly committed to ending the suffering of people throughout the world, we must take drastic measures to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

As we learned from experts leading the panel discussions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed Carbon Rules would help curb carbon pollution in an effort to slow the process of climate change. The United States contains 5% of the world’s population and emits approximately 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases. In other words, we are the main contributors to pollution that is largely effecting poor regions of the world.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA’s Carbon Rules would reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants, leading to a reduction in harmful carbon dioxide and, to a lesser extent, particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Climate change has led to negative health effects, including an increase in asthma due to heat waves (which mainly affect young children and the elderly population), Lyme disease, and a general lowering of the quality of air we breathe. The Carbon Rules would also offset jobs lost in the fossil fuel industries by investing in the development of alternative clean energy industries (namely wind and solar). Health experts and economists alike agree that the shared estimates of climate and health benefits is greater than costs incurred.

Numbers and cents aside, we also heard from community-based organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). One compelling story shared by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade was of a community that suffered from widespread illness caused by a nearby oil refinery. Should the Carbon Rules become law, this kind of pollution would become less prevalent. It is important to note that refineries and power plants are built mainly in low-income areas, and disproportionately affect the poor.

While the Carbon Rules are not the complete answer to climate change, they are a much-needed first step. At the meeting, some Catholics raised concerns over the Carbon Rules’ reliance on natural gas and nuclear energy as energy-efficient alternatives. The increased extraction of natural gas—referred to as “fracking”—has many health implications for people as well as polluting the air with methane and causing damage to the earth and water supplies. Others present raised questions about increased energy costs and how that would affect low-income households who are already struggling to pay their bills. Supplemental legislation would be needed to ensure that the poor are given access to programs that cut their energy costs, such as adding insulation to their homes, and workers in fossil-fuel industries would need to be compensated and trained for new jobs.

Perhaps the most exciting portion of our day was a sit-down conversation with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who graciously answered our questions and listened to descriptions of our efforts to educate Catholics about carbon pollution and the benefits of the Carbon Rules. She shared that there is already a shift in the energy sector, as consumers grow more conscious of the impact of fossil fuels, and look for more environmentally-friendly energy.

As Columbans throughout the world continue to witness the devastating impact of natural disasters, the drying up of water sources, and the increase of “climate migrants” forced to leave their homes due to climate change, we continue to work for climate justice and respond to God’s call to be good stewards of Creation.