The Moral Urgency of Climate Action

Last fall, standing on the White House lawn with President Obama – and millions around the world – looking on, Pope Francis reiterated his commitment to action on climate change: “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation.”

His remarks reiterated the powerful message found in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s groundbreaking letter issued last year which outlined the moral case for action on climate change and environmental degradation and called on nations to address the situation immediately.

The Pope’s remarks also followed within weeks of President Obama finalizing the Clean Power Plan, the single most significant step the U.S. has ever taken to reduce carbon pollution and protect the climate and public health. Pope Francis clearly felt this and other U.S. efforts were a step forward: “Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution.”

For me as a U.S. Catholic bishop, the moment on the White House lawn brought together the vision ofLaudato Si’ with a concrete issue on which the U.S. bishops have been advocating for 25 years—carbon pollution limits from power plants.

The Earth is “Our Common Home.” Our ecological future depends upon us all.  As such we must be good stewards of the planet entrusted to our care. Climate change is a moral issue: It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity, with its worst impact felt by our poorest communities and developing countries worldwide in the coming decades. And it is far from a new danger.

In 1990, Saint Pope John Paul II observed that the “’greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.” Since then, the Catholic Church has consistently recognized climate change as a moral issue. Our calls for action on this challenge rose to a crescendo in Pope Francis’s encyclical and vocal support for an international agreement in Paris.

The effects of climate change, including drought, rising sea levels, and more frequent severe weather events, are already harming people around the globe. In the Diocese of Stockton, in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada Foothills, we are dealing with a historic drought and the resulting unemployment and food insecurity. Because of this, our local Catholic Charities is serving ever more people who have lost jobs or need emergency food assistance. The impacts of climate change are more than harmful: they’re unjust. The poor and vulnerable are disproportionately impacted by these realities despite being least responsible for causing climate change.

And so we are called to act. One way to begin to ease these burdens, to protect creation and to promote the common good, is for people of faith and goodwill to support policies that will reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change. A national standard on carbon pollution, like the Clean Power Plan, deserves our support. When fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan will prevent thousands of premature deaths, dramatically reduce asthma attacks in children, and produce climate and health benefits worth tens of billions of dollars.

The need for action is clear. Thirty Catholic organizations, including dioceses, national groups, universities, and religious orders, have joined with other faith leaders to file an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit saying just that. The brief emphasizes our moral obligation to act on climate change.

As a Catholic bishop committed to the protection of human life and dignity, the promotion of the common good, and the mitigation of climate change, it is my sincere hope that this court will swiftly uphold the legal merits of the Clean Power Plan. Furthermore, I encourage states to proceed with carbon pollution reduction plans (as California is doing) to lower greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants which are vital in caring for our planet and the health of our communities, especially for the most vulnerable among us. I urge citizens to contact their elected officials to support these life-saving, clean air standards.

As Pope Francis has taught us, the moral measure of debate on climate change isn’t whether we shouldact to safeguard God’s creation, advance the common good, and protect humanity. It’s how quickly we can act in light of this threat in order to protect creation and care for the poor.

Rev. Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Stockton, California. 

Morning Consult