President Obama on Climate Change

On Tuesday, June 25, 2013, President Obama unveiled the most ambitious plan to date by any U.S. President to address the increasingly urgent climate crisis. Although the speech was addressed to both the nation and the world, the address is particularly relevant for millennial Catholics. This is first due to the fact that he unveiled his plan to young people at Georgetown University and spoke directly to “your generation.” Additionally, the Catholic Church has explicitly and repeatedly advocated for public policies to address the climate crisis. Finally he mentioned two issues that have found resonance on Catholic college campuses and with millennials: the Keystone XL Pipeline and divestment from carbon-intensive industries.

The President’s Address

The President began by recounting the scientific facts of climate change: “scientists ha[ve] known since the 1800s that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trap heat, and that burning fossil fuels release those gases into the air [. . .] The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all [of the uncertainty around climate science] to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.”

The President also laid out the impacts that the climate crisis is having—and will increasingly have—on people around the world. He particularly noted rising sea levels, drought-induced food stresses, and reduced water supplies, and went on to point out that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief.” In addition, the President noted that poor “countries are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are [in the U.S.]. They don’t just have as much to lose, they probably have more to lose.”

In a preemptive move anticipating the “tired excuses” for climate inaction from those who claim that “we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy,” the President insisted that addressing the climate crisis does not have to adversely impact the U.S. economy. Rather, he framed the transition to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity for U.S. ingenuity, and encouraged people to both invest in a sustainable future and divest from carbon-intensive industries.

After his focus on the science and consequences of climate change, the President delivered what is arguably one of the most prophetic and decisive climate statements of both his talk and his presidency:

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader — a global leader — in the fight against climate change.”

He said that in light of failed Congressional climate policy efforts and the unwillingness of Congress to respond to his invitation for a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change,” he would use his executive powers to address climate change in three key areas: carbon emission reductions, adaptation preparation, and international mitigation and adaptation efforts. The Washington Post has provided a helpful summary outline of the specific components of the President’s climate action plan.

Relevance to Millennial Catholics

Much has already been written about the implications of the President’s climate address. However,  there are at least five reasons why the speech is particularly relevant to millennial Catholics:

1. The millennial generation accepts the reality of climate change.

As noted, the President gave his address to a university audience and spoke directly to “your generation.” As I pointed out in my previous article Catholic Millennials and 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.” Millennials thus represent a crucial demographic in the effort to address climate change, and the President’s call to action might therefore be seen as particularly addressed to millennials:

What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands. Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

2. The choice of Georgetown University as the speech venue.

Of all the places in Washington D.C.—indeed the country—from which the President could have delivered his landmark climate speech, he chose to do so at a Catholic university. Although there are likely many reasons  why this venue was chosen, it is interesting to note that many of the themes highlighted by the President in his address—the biblical image of creation, the disproportionate vulnerability of poor communities, the responsibility we have to hand on a livable planet to future generations—are all key elements of the Church’s response to climate change.

Whether or not the President intended to do so, the choice to deliver his climate message from a Catholic university highlights the congruence between many secular and faith-based efforts to address the climate crisis. This in many ways affirms the insight made by Pope Benedict XVI that the climate crisis cannot be solved without the involvement of the church. As he said in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, climate change “is a challenge for the Church.  She not only has a major responsibility; she is, I would say, often the only hope.  For she 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” (p. 46).

3. The Church’s call for a moral climate policy.

The Catholic Church has explicitly and repeatedly advocated for both international and domestic climate change policies. Pope Benedict XVI did so repeatedly in many addresses over the years, including his Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, the Angelus delivered in November of 2011, the Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps for the Traditional Exchange of New Year Greetings, and his Message to the 2009 International Summit on Climate Change. Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has advocated for domestic and international climate change policies in many of its documents, including the 2013 Letter to President Obama, Legislative Response to Climate Change, Global Climate Change and our Catholic Response, Global Climate Change 2011, Global Climate Change 2010, and Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.

Throughout these documents, the Church particularly calls on Catholics to advocate for climate change policies that meet three specific moral criteria:

(1) ease the burden on poor people;

(2) offer some relief for workers who may be displaced because of climate change policies; and

(3) promote the development and use of alternate renewable and clean-energy resources, including the transfer of such technologies and technical assistance that may be appropriate and helpful to developing countries in meeting the challenges of global climate change.

The President’s articulation of his climate action plan provides Catholics with an opportunity—and a responsibility—to reflect on and advocate for the moral principles that the Church insists should be part of any climate solution.

4. The Church’s expressed concern over the Keyston XL Pipeline

The President caught many off guard in his address by referencing the contentious Keystone XL pipeline that, if approved by the U.S. State Department, would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil across the 1,700 miles from Alberta to Texas each day. Although he did not make a commitment either way, the President said:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Canadian tar sands oil to be “approximately 82% [more greenhouse gas intensive] than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis.” In view of this, and despite no official position from either the USCCB or the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, two Canadian bishops have expressed deep concern about the development of Canadian tar sands in the past.

Bishop Murray Chatlain of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, lamented that development of Canadian tar sands “will contribute to the climate change impacts that Northerners are experiencing.” Similarly, Most Reverend Luc Bouchard, Bishop of St. Paul, Alberta, warned that “new oil sands projects and expansions keep raising the total amount of emissions despite average per barrel reductions.” The President’s reference to the pipeline project gives further credence to the concerns of these prominent Catholic leaders, and should be taken up as an opportunity for other people of faith to advocate on the issue.

5. The increasing Catholic commitment to divestment.

Finally, the President’s climate address is relevant to millennial Catholics due to his reference to divestment from carbon-intensive industries. For more than a year now, a national movement has encouraged colleges, universities, cities, and other large institutions to divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies. The campaign argues that divestment is an effective tool that sends a market signal encouraging a shift in investments from high-carbon to low-carbon industries and decreasing the political influence of large fossil fuel corporations that obstruct effective climate policies.

Although the divestment campaign is generally targeted at all large organizations, students at Georgetown University and Boston College argue that their schools’ Catholic and Jesuit missions provide a moral imperative to divest their institutions’ endowments from fossil fuel corporations profiting from climate change and compromising key commitments of the Catholic Church. Although there are many considerations around the issue of fossil fuel divestment, the President’s reference to this strategy should encourage millennial Catholics, as well as administrators at Catholic institutions, to have a thoughtful and sustained conversation about the ethical considerations of investing in corporations that seek to profit without regard to their impact on climate change.


The climate crisis is among the greatest challenges of the twenty first century, and its scope requires that all people of faith and goodwill be engaged in the policy discussions that will shape humanity’s collective response. Millennial Catholics, by the nature of their age and faith, are in a unique position to make meaningful contributions to the policy discussion and bring much-needed energy to the climate debate. President Obama’s climate speech on June 25 seems to recognize the leadership potential of all millennials, and millennial Catholics have a distinct opportunity to lead their peers in the effort to avert climate catastrophe and so fully care for all God’s human and non-human creation.