‘Now is our biggest opportunity ever to deliver a future worthy of our country’s values, supportive of our collective aspirations and dreams, and protective our children’s health and our natural resources’

Even in this year of horrors, we won’t soon forget watching Australia burn at Christmas. In the decade past we’ve watched the Great Barrier Reef — largest living structure on planet Earth — become half as living, lobotomizing a whole chunk of God’s brain. We’ve watched half the sea ice in the Arctic melt, and the ocean become sharply more acidic; we’ve seen bigger storms and deeper droughts. And all that’s with one degree Celsius of global warming. Unless we immediately flatten the carbon curve we’re headed for 3 degrees, and with it an almost impossible circumstance for what we call civilization. Everything is on the line.

By Bill McKibben, ncronline.org, May 2020

Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” emerged 25 years after scientists first made public the news that we were wrecking our planet by heating its atmosphere, and I can still remember the enormous relief that came with reading Pope Francis’ words. As I wrote that day, “I’ve been working on climate change for a quarter century, and for much of that time it felt like enduring one of those nightmarish dreams where no one can hear your warnings. In recent years a broad-based movement has arisen to take up the challenge, but this marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognized the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be human.”

That feeling of intellectual relief continues to this day — Laudato Si’ is perhaps the great document so far of this millennium, a remarkably rich critique of what we call modernity. It managed to integrate the two great anomalies of our time: the spike in temperature and the spike in inequality, understanding them together with unmatched power.

But it must be said: We need more than intellectual relief. April was, depending on the data set, either the first or second hottest April ever recorded on our planet. Scientists said this month there was a 75% chance that 2020 will be the hottest year in our planet’s recorded history. All of course are rightly transfixed by the coronavirus pandemic, but it is a crisis inside of a much larger and more intractable crisis: the ongoing climate catastrophe.

Even in this year of horrors, we won’t soon forget watching Australia burn at Christmas. In the decade past we’ve watched the Great Barrier Reef — largest living structure on planet Earth — become half as living, lobotomizing a whole chunk of God’s brain. We’ve watched half the sea ice in the Arctic melt, and the ocean become sharply more acidic; we’ve seen bigger storms and deeper droughts. And all that’s with one degree Celsius of global warming. Unless we immediately flatten the carbon curve we’re headed for 3 degrees, and with it an almost impossible circumstance for what we call civilization. Everything is on the line.

Students at Gonzaga University demonstrate during the September 2019 Climate Strike (Catholic Divestment Network)

And so it’s been notable that the pontiff’s words have not been matched with as much action as one might hope. Since I’m a Methodist, I can’t pretend to understand the inner workings of the Holy See; I certainly understand that it moves slowly, but I also hope it might in this case work a bit faster. Because this is a timed test: the scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said quite clearly that unless we have transformed our energy systems by 2030, we’ll never meet the targets the world set in Paris some months after Laudato Si’.

The church does not, at least directly, exercise governmental power — it can only set moral examples, pushing and prodding. So the pope can’t really pull one of the two levers big enough to matter — the political lever.  But the church and its endless affiliates do have money, and so they can pull the other lever that counts, the financial one.

Thanks to the remarkable people at the Global Catholic Climate Movement, this work has begun. More than 150 Catholic institutions have divested from fossil fuel stocks. They range from Caritas chapters in many parts of the world to religious orders and lay movements to dioceses (including Assisi, which tickled me when I heard the news, being a devotee of the original Francis). Just this winter Georgetown University divested; the wonderful people at Trocaire played a huge role in convincing the entire country of Ireland to divest its public accounts.

And these actions have had enormous effect: Shell Oil said in its annual report last year that divestment had become a material risk to its business — that’s good, because Shell’s business is a material risk to the planet. When the coal companies sought their COVID-19 bailout from Congress this spring, they explicitly said that divestment campaigns had made it impossible for them to raise sufficient capital. Nothing has done more to break the political power of this industry — and breaking that political power is a crucial way to start moving towards a clean energy world at the speed that physics, and morality, demand.

And one can divest without damaging the crucial missions of the church — indeed, since fossil fuel has been the weakest performing part of the economy this last decade, those who divested have far more resources for doing the work the Gospel calls us to.

So here’s what would make Laudato Si’ truly resonate five years later: an announcement from the Vatican that its bank was cutting its ties to the fossil fuel industry, and a recommendation to all other Catholic institutions to follow suit.

It wouldn’t even take an encyclical — Francis could do it with a tweet.

Bill McKibben is an author, environmentalist and activist whose 1989 book, The End of Nature, is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change. Follow him on Twitter: @billmckibben

Laudato Si’ anniversary an opportunity to speak up, stand up, act up

Rebuilding our economy following this pandemic provides us the biggest opportunity we have ever had to deliver a future that is worthy of our country’s values, supportive of our collective aspirations and dreams, and protective our children’s health and our natural resources. We can begin to capture that opportunity by investing stimulus dollars in ways that reject our fossil fuel past and instead build a clean energy economy as the foundation for a cleaner, healthier, safer, and more just and sustainable future — and one where we all win. Isn’t that what Pope Francis was hoping to see happen?

This article appears in the Laudato Si’ at Five feature series. View the full series

After Pope Francis released his Laudato Si’ encyclical on the environment five years ago, I joined thousands of Americans on the White House lawn to witness our Holy Father say, “The environmental challenge we are undergoing — and its human roots — concern and affect us all … As Christians inspired by this certainty, we wish to commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home.”

It was an incredible honor to be there — not only as a product of Catholic schools but also as someone who has spent her entire life fighting to protect our kids and the most vulnerable among us from pollution. His Holiness reminded us that fighting climate change isn’t just about polar bears — it’s about people. It’s about our moral obligation to protect our children, our grandchildren, and the most vulnerable among us from the most significant public health challenge of our time.

I sat politely glued to my seat, just as the nuns had taught me, and I quickly became engrossed in his words. They left me inspired, energized, hopeful and recommitted to a healthier, safer, sustainable future. And now during these troubled times, I find myself coming back to that moment as I stay indoors or venture outdoors for a short walk with my mask on, careful not to walk too close to my neighbors.

Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus threatens every single one of us — but not equally. It goes after people of color and those who live in low-income communities because they already suffer from disproportionately high rates of lung and heart ailments, and those preconditions weaken their ability to survive COVID-19. Already, scientists are documenting significantly higher death rates for those who bear the burden of living along highways and near refineries and other industries where pollution is so high that the air is unhealthy to breathe.

The pope reminded us that it’s our responsibility to care for our “common home.” Protecting the natural resources we depend on is a moral obligation the Holy Father wanted us to acknowledge and act on. It is a fundamental obligation recognized by religions everywhere, and the pope was reminding us of our individual responsibility to our friends, our family, our neighbors — and our collective obligation to embrace this challenge together.  

As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the pope’s encyclical, it is my hope that faith and religious organizations will use this day as a time to remind their congregations and all of those in a position of leadership in the public and private sectors of their obligation to put people — not polluters or profits — at the forefront of every decision they make. And I would hope that the day could be a chance to remind all of us that we cannot take our world for granted. We must speak up, stand up and act up if we hope to protect the people we love and the places we live. We must demand our right to clean air, safe drinking water and healthy, safe places to live, work and play.

After all, isn’t it time for us to be thoughtful stewards of our precious natural resources? Shouldn’t we start by heeding the cries of our children? They are asking us to save their future by embracing science and facts, implementing and enforcing our rule of law, and developing and delivering an action plan that will finally allow us to stare down the existential threat of climate change. What’s stopping us from envisioning and investing in a better future, one that won’t be built on the backs of the most vulnerable but instead provides the most vulnerable with the kind of immediate benefits they deserve?

Rebuilding our economy following this pandemic provides us the biggest opportunity we have ever had to deliver a future that is worthy of our country’s values, supportive of our collective aspirations and dreams, and protective our children’s health and our natural resources. We can begin to capture that opportunity by investing stimulus dollars in ways that reject our fossil fuel past and instead build a clean energy economy as the foundation for a cleaner, healthier, safer, and more just and sustainable future — and one where we all win. Isn’t that what Pope Francis was hoping to see happen?

I have a picture on my wall at home that was taken in the White House during the pope’s visit. It shows President Obama introducing me to Pope Francis, who is holding my hand while my knees were shaking. And I often think about how great it would be if my mother was alive to see this picture. She would be amazed and, if truth be told, so am I. That picture is a constant reminder to me that I cannot relent in the fight against climate change, and I am standing in pretty good company.

Pope Francis greets Gina McCarthy, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, at the White House, Sept. 23, 2015, as President Barack Obama looks on. Obama appointed McCarthy as assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in 2009. (Courtesy of Barack Obama Presidential Library)

[Gina McCarthy served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from July 2013 to January 2017 and became president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in January 2020.]

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