Catholics against Climate Change: Faithful Advocates for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited draft of carbon pollution standards for existing fossil fuel power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan. Americans now have 120 days to offer public comments on the rules, and U.S. Catholics are encouraged to do so using the ethical principles articulated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in a recent letter to the EPA.

The Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan is the nation’s first coordinated attempt to regulate the emission of climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. Carbon dioxide is the most pervasive greenhouse gas, and fossil fuel power plants—which account for 38% of overall carbon emissions in America—are the largest collective domestic source of such emissions.

The Plan regulates carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.  It establishes state-level carbon reduction targets and then empowers each state to determine how it will meet its reduction target. States will have several years within which to submit and implement carbon reduction plans, and the overall effect of the Clean Power Plan is expected to be a 30% decline in national carbon emissions from existing power plants by 2030 relative to 2005.

A Catholic Approach to Defending Creation

On behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops and as chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to outline six ethical policy criteria that ought to guide any efforts to reduce carbon pollution. As such, what follows is an analysis of the Clean Energy Plan in light of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ criteria.

  1. Respect for Human Life and Dignity

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change currently causes more than 150,000 annual deaths around the world.  U.S. climate-changing carbon emissions from fossil fuel use are the second highest in the world.  When fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan can be expected to save a substantial number of human lives.  The EPA also estimates that the Plan will avoid thousands of premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and hospital admissions that would have otherwise been caused by particle pollution from fossil fuel power plants.

  1. Prudence on Behalf of the Common Good

The USCCB describes prudence as “intelligence applied to our actions.”  NASA points out that 97% of climate scientists agree that human activities such as fossil fuel-related carbon emissions “are very likely” the cause of climate change.  Knowing this, along with the fact that few would argue that the earth’s climate is certainly a global common good, adopting the Clean Power Plan is acting prudently on behalf of the common good.

  1. Priority for the Poor and Vulnerable

The poor and vulnerable are excessively—and unjustly—harmed by climate change, as they have the fewest resources to adapt to climate impacts.  Since the Clean Power Plan will both reduce U.S. carbon emissions and increase the likelihood of a strong international climate treaty, the Plan could go a long way toward protecting poor and vulnerable people both at home and abroad from the harmful effects of climate change

  1. Social and Economic Justice

In the long run, the Clean Power Plan will secure increased social and economic justice by mitigating the climate change that disproportionately harms the poor and vulnerable. In the short term, however, regulations such as the Clean Power Plan must not add to the burdens of low-income consumers and fossil fuel industry workers. Although the overall economic cost of the EPA’s carbon pollution rules is likely to be relatively small, and despite the potential $37.4 billion savings from energy efficiency measures spurred by the proposed Plan, it must be supplemented to include positive economic provisions to ensure immediate justice for vulnerable workers and the poor.

  1. Care for Creation

Although the Clean Power Plan alone will not solve the climate crisis, it is an important initial effort that reduces U.S. carbon emissions and increases the likelihood of a substantive international climate change agreement. It is therefore both an actual and promising initiative to care for God’s good gift of Creation. At the same time, however, the Institute for Policy Studies as well as Food & Water Watch have been critical of the limited scope of the industry-specific Clean Power Plan, which they say will fail to reach the 2020 goal of reducing carbon emissions in developed countries to a targeted 25-40% below 1990 emissions levels.

  1. Participation

The Clean Power Plan is the result of 11 public listening sessions and consultation with more than 300 interest groups over the last year. Additionally, citizens now have 120 days within which to submit comments on the Plan. Finally, states have tremendous flexibility to discern the right mix of policies and plans to reduce their carbon emissions. The Plan thus represents widespread individual and collective participation.


The EPA’s Clean Power Plan largely satisfies the USCCB’s ethical criteria for carbon pollution regulation. Although the Plan lacks provisions that will secure immediate social and economic justice for fossil fuel industry workers and the poor, comments by Catholics and others can help add these protections to the Plan before it is finalized sometime next year.  In addition, this Plan should not absolve Congress from doing its job and crafting legislative proposals that further advance the critical need to drive down greenhouse gas pollution.  U.S. Catholics should indicate their support for these principles and this plan, while urging lawmakers to take additional steps that protect vulnerable workers and the poor from regressive economic impacts.

Updated: #5 has been updated with analysis from the Institute for Policy Studies.