More than twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II brought the attention of the Catholic Church to the issue of climate change when he declared in his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, “The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions.” Since that time, the Church has increasingly recognized climate change as a moral issue and called on people of faith and goodwill to address this challenge. Various high-profile statements have underlined that the consequences of climate change—which include food and water stresses, drought, disease, and more frequent severe weather events—are threatening human life and dignity and compromising core principles of the Christian faith, including the fundamental option for the poor and vulnerable and care for God’s good gift of Creation.
Despite these moral and ethical appeals made by the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), other international bishops’ conferences and numerous Catholic NGOs, the Earth’s atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide recently surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history. This is a distressing benchmark since most climate scientists agree that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 must be stabilized at 350 ppm by mid-century in order to avoid irreversible and runaway climate change. It is perhaps even more disturbing that current emissions patterns are showing few signs of decline to this safe level, but are rather on pace to increase to 450 ppm in just a few decades.
With a rapidly closing window within which to prevent catastrophic climate change, there are at least four reasons why Catholic millennials, in particular, must quickly address this issue. The first is that the Catholic Church is in a unique position to catalyze climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, as motivation based in faith is deeper and longer lasting. In Light of the World, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said it this way: “[The Church] is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls.” This ability to transform minds and hearts is especially important in light of climate change because all people—especially those in the so-called “global North” who disproportionately contribute to climate change—must begin to accept “more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency,” as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI asserted in his 2010 World Day of Peace Message (no. 9).
The second reason why Catholic millennials must urgently address climate change is because, as the USCCB points out, “The Catholic Church brings a distinct perspective to the debate about climate change by lifting up the moral dimensions of this issue and the needs of the most vulnerable among us.” Guided by Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and the Church’s vast experience in promoting human life, defending human dignity and advocating for the poor and vulnerable, Catholics are exceptionally positioned and very credibly qualified to proactively engage in efforts to help mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Related to this, Catholic millennials ought to become engaged on the issue of climate change issue because we are members of a faith that is especially able to inspire and animate the type of optimism needed in confronting this challenge. In the face of understandable pessimism about the global nature of climate change, Christians are inspired by the hope of the Resurrection. Indeed, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI observed in his 2009 Urbi et Orbi Easter Message, “At a time of…disturbing climate change…it is urgent to rediscover grounds for hope. Let no one draw back from this peaceful battle that has been launched by Christ’s Resurrection.”
Finally, Catholic millennials should urgently address climate change because we “get it.” Unlike older generations, millenials understand clearly the reality and threats of anthropogenic climate change. The Pew Research Center has found that millennials are more likely to accept the reality that climate change is caused by human activity and are the least likely to deny climate science. This understanding and energy ought to be directed toward vigorous and sustained efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, as well as to assist those most harmed by the impact of climate change.
But where do Catholic millenials begin this urgent and important work? Although there are a number of effective actions that can be taken and numerous commendable organizations address this issue, one uniquely faith-based place for Catholic millennials to begin is by taking the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor from the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. The Coalition consists of a dozen national Catholic organizations—including the USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities USA—and the St. Francis Pledge is a commitment by Catholic individuals, families, parishes, diocese, schools, colleges/universities, and other institutions to:
- PRAY and reflect on the duty to care for God’s Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable.
- LEARN about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change.
- 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.
- ACT to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change.
- ADVOCATE for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.
Catholics are encouraged to register their Pledge commitment online(which can be done here), connect with the Coalition on Facebook and Twitter, and review the many other resources designed to help live the Catholic faith more fully in this area.
In his Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Occasion of the Seventh Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment Movement, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared, “Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.” The Catholic Church, under the guidance of Pope Francis, the bishops, clergy, religious and laity will continue to call people of faith and goodwill to action on climate change. Amidst this, Catholic millennials have both a faith-based imperative and a unique opportunity to respond to the call of the Church. The St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor is one means by which Catholics can faithfully address the issue of climate change, and there has never been a more urgent need for Catholic millennials to fervently devote their energy and passion to what should be regarded as the most pressing challenge of the twenty-first century.