Creation Care and Solidarity

Millennial writer Dan DiLeo has a new article in Catholic Rural Life Magazine. He writes:

The connection between solidarity and Creation care exists because of their concurrent relationships to the common good. The Church recognizes that humanity’s embeddedness within Creation means that promotion of the common good requires sustainable environmental conditions.

The full article can be read here.


Complicit Down Under: America’s Moral Responsibility for Australia’s Carbon Tax Repeal

On July 16, 2014, Australia lapsed into a relative state of climatic irresponsibility when it repealed the national carbon tax that had been in place since 2012. Although this may seem like an amoral intranational policy decision, traditional categories of Catholic moral theology can help demonstrate that Australia’s carbon tax repeal is actually a morally wrong action in which the U.S. is complicit. In view of this, U.S. Catholics have an even more urgent moral imperative to advocate that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan be guided by Catholic teaching.

A Brief Background

In the face of both climate change and the inability of voluntary efforts to adequately mitigate the crisis, there is widespread advocacy for an economic price to be placed on greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, there is a diverse and growing coalition that supports national carbon taxation.

In 2012, the Labor-led Australian government passed one of the world’s first national taxes on carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions. Although the policy has since been celebrated as both environmentally effective and legislatively exemplary—especially since Australia has one of the highest national CO2 emission levels per capita—the policy has been persistently maligned as economically harmful by Australia’s conservative Liberal Party and high-emitting industries.

America’s Role in Australia’s Repeal

Many of the arguments levied against Australia’s carbon tax by the Liberal Party and greenhouse gas emission-intensive industries were intranational in scope. At the same time, however, one argument used against the carbon tax was distinctively international: carbon tax opponents argued that the policy placed Australian companies at a competitive disadvantage against those in developed nations that lack similar carbon emission regulations.

Given that the U.S. has the world’s largest national GDP, along with the reality that the U.S. has repeatedly failed to establish a national carbon price, it is not a stretch to say that the U.S. is complicit in the immoral repeal of Australia’s carbon tax. In order to understand more clearly how and why this is so, Catholics can utilize key concepts from the tradition of Catholic moral theology.

Morality of an Action

Traditional Catholic moral theology maintains that all moral actions, i.e., actions freely chosen, are made up of three components: the objective act as judged by conscience, the intention for acting, and circumstances that include the action’s consequences. In order for an act to be morally good, each aspect must in and of itself be good. Guided by these terms, moral theologians sometimes engage in a process called casuistry whereby the morality of an act is determined by identifying and judging the object, intention, and circumstance of an agent or action.

Although both the aforementioned moral terms and process of casuistry are traditionally applied to individuals’ actions, they can nevertheless be helpful in analogous moral reasoning (i.e., “analogical imagination,” as David Tracy might say) about nations’ actions. In particular, these moral resources can help shed light on how and why the U.S. is partially responsible and culpable for Australia’s immoral carbon tax repeal.

First, it might be argued that Australia’s carbon tax repeal had a good object; that is to say, Australians’ consciences judged the repeal to be objectively good for the country. Similarly, it might be said that Australia’s repeal was guided by a good intention—specifically, the desire to support a legislative repeal intended to promote human flourishing.

At this point, however, it becomes clear that the circumstances of the repeal—specifically the foreseeable consequences of likely climate change proliferation and subsequent human suffering—cannot be judged good. Since object, intention, and circumstance must each be good in order for an act to be good, Australia’s carbon tax repeal can be judged as not morally good, i.e., as morally wrong.

Cooperation with Evil

Given the moral wrongness of Australia’s carbon tax repeal, two additional terms from Catholic moral theology can help reveal America’s complicity in this wrong. Catholic moral theology recognizes two categories of cooperation with evil. As moral theologian James T. Bretzke, S.J., writes in his Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms, “Formal cooperation means sharing in the sinful intent of the principle agent of evil…Material cooperation is the objective aid given or tolerated to the evil caused.” Although these terms generally apply to individuals’ positive actions, they can also help assess the analogous morality of nations’ deliberate non-actions.

In light of this moral framework, America’s failure to establish a carbon price does not constitute formal cooperation—Americans (presumably) did not resist a domestic carbon price in order to encourage Australia’s carbon tax repeal. At the same time, however, the internationally-focused argument for repeal of Australia’s carbon tax, i.e., that competitor countries such as the U.S. do not have a carbon price, shows that America can be said to be materially cooperative with Australia’s carbon tax repeal.

Although Catholic theology asserts that an agent is always wrong to formally cooperate with evil, the tradition also maintains that the degree of an agent’s moral culpability in material cooperation depends on several factors. One such factor, as M. Cathleen Kaveny points out, is gravity, i.e., the seriousness of the moral offense. Given that Australia’s carbon tax repeal is likely to exacerbate climate change and may imperil international climate treaty negotiations, a case can be made that this policy decision is gravely wrong. As such, and in view of how America exercised a sort of material cooperation with this act, the U.S. bears a significant moral responsibility for its complicity in Australia’s morally wrong policy decision (along with other economically advanced countries without domestic climate change mitigation policies).

Opportunity for Repentance: Clean Power Plan Advocacy

Despite America’s collective moral culpability for Australia’s carbon tax repeal, Americans currently have an opportunity to make some amends for past shortcomings. On June 2, 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed its Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. Public comments on the Plan are now being accepted through October 16, 2014, and the Catholic Climate Covenant has published a Clean Power Plan advocacy page where people of faith and goodwill can support the Plan in keeping with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Given both America’s complicity in Australia’s carbon tax repeal and America’s own contributions to global climate change, there is thus an urgent moral imperative for U.S. Catholics to take this important advocacy step.

The author is grateful to M. Cathleen Kaveny, J.D., Ph.D., for her helpful feedback on an earlier version of this essay.


Daniel DiLeo: Recommendations for an Updated USCCB Energy Statement

Millennial writer Daniel DiLeo has a new article in Political Theology Today, in which he summarizes the 1981 USCCB energy statement, identifies aspects of the statement that continue to be particularly relevant, and briefly proposes ways in which an updated energy statement can offer more pertinent Catholic guidance regarding today’s most pressing energy challenges. He writes:

Although the bishops’ 1981 energy statement thus continues to make important contributions to contemporary energy discussions, there seem to be several important updates necessary to a Catholic energy statement for the twenty-first century. The first is that the real and present reality of anthropogenic climate change is one of the most—if not the most—pressing energy challenge facing humanity. This is due to the fact that this challenge—which is accepted by 97% of climate scientists as well as the Catholic Church—is both largely driven by fossil fuel combustion and rapidly approaching a “tipping point” beyond which its adverse consequences will likely become both runaway and irreversible.

The full article can be read here.


Scientists and the Vatican Agree: Climate Change is Real, Must be Addressed

One of the most familiar theological notions to millennial Catholics is likely that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, 4). Although there are numerous examples of how the Church continues to do this, one of the most recent—and poignant—occurred earlier this month in Rome. There, the Vatican held an environmental sustainability conference that coincidentally coincided with two new climate change reports. Taken together, these events illustrate how Catholic millennials are called to discerningly respond to pressing contemporary social challenges such as climate change.

Climate Change Assessment Reports

On Tuesday, May 6, the U.S. Global Change Research Program published the Third National Climate Assessment. The report, described as “the authoritative and comprehensive report on climate change and its impacts in the United States,” details the science of climate change and the many adverse impacts that this reality is currently having on American society (for a visual overview of the report, see “National Climate Assessment: 15 arresting images of climate change now and in the pipeline.” These negative effects include, but are not limited to: more frequent severe weather events, rising sea levels, increased drought, water stresses, agricultural difficulties, higher disease incidents, and adverse economic pressures. Although the report recognizes that “there is still time to act to limit the amount of change and the extent of damaging impacts,” it stresses that “climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

Then on Monday, May 12, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and University of California, Irvine released a new report which found that “a rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in an irreversible state of decline, with nothing to stop the glaciers in this area from melting into the sea.” Based on this, the report predicts that the melting of these glaciers alone—which is recognized as related to anthropogenic climate change—could raise global sea levels by as much as four feet in the coming centuries.

Vatican Sustainability Conference

In response to such reports about the science and consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the Church highlights the need for prudence described by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theoloigae as the cardinal virtue of “right reason applied to action.” In particular, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declares:

In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus—even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious—justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind’s well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.

Although Aquinas emphasizes the fundamental need for prudence in all practical reasoning about action, he stresses that prudence is “help[ed] and perfect[ed]” by counsel understood as consultation with wise persons. Given this, and in light of the Church’s use of prudence in its on-going response to climate change, it is not surprising that the Vatican recently concluded an interdisciplinary environmental sustainability conference.

Between May 2 and May 6, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held a joint conference titled Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility. There, the Church brought together dozens of top scientists and economists to reflect on anthropogenic climate change and other pressing environmental challenges (for in-depth accounts of the conference proceedings, see the reports from Daniel J. Misleh, Executive Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, and Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times reporter and Dot Earth columnist).

Based on this counsel, the Vatican Academies prudentially concluded in their Final Conference Statement that, among other things:

  • “Today we have changed our natural environment to such an extent that scientists are redefining the current period as the Age of the Anthropocene, that is to say an age when human action, through the use of fossil fuels, is having a decisive impact on the planet. If current trends continue, this century will witness unprecedented climate changes and ecosystem destruction that will severely impact us all.”
  • “The massive fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system deeply disrupts the Earth’s climate and acidifies the world’s oceans.”
  • “Energy systems can be made much more efficient and much less dependent on coal, petrol and natural gas to avoid climate change, protect the oceans, and clean the air of coal-based pollutants.”
  • “We have the innovative and technological capability to be good stewards of Creation. Humanity needs urgently to redirect our relationship with nature by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals so as to promote a sustainable pattern of economic development and social inclusion.”
  • “Today we need a relationship of mutual benefit: true values should permeate the economy and respect for Creation should promote human dignity and wellbeing.”

Conclusion

The crisis of anthropogenic climate change is one that is rapidly and starkly challenging all millennials of faith and goodwill. In response, Catholic millennials have an opportunity—and responsibility—to apply the insights of both Gaudium et Spes and Aquinas in order to discern and advocate for prudent climate change mitigation and adaptation responses that are guided by wise counsel and inspired by the Gospel. The recent Vatican conference on environmental sustainability provides one macro-level example of this process, and Catholic millennials should thus seek to emulate this example in whatever ways they are able.


Prudence and Climate Change: How the Church Can Help Our Response to Climate Science

In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II recognized that “[t]he gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.” At the time he delivered that message, the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was ~350 parts per million (ppm). Since then, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded human history.

Given this alarming trend, a recently-published report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a valuable tool by which persons and communities can better understand and respond to climate change. At the same time, however, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ distinct insight about prudence vis-à-vis climate change should be seen as a necessary supplement to this new report.

IPCC’s New Report: WGII AR5

Last Monday, the IPCC released the Working Group II (WGII) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). This report, published by a working group of the IPCC’s thousands of climate scientists from more than one hundred countries, affirms many of the worst-case expectations regarding the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. For example, the report reiterates the IPCC Working Group I AR5 finding that “It is extremely likely [i.e., known with 95-100% certainty] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the [earth’s] observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Moreover, the report affirms that despite some “uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts,” unmitigated anthropogenic climate change is causing—and will continue to cause—increased heat waves, drought, flooding, wildfires, severe weather events, glacial retreat, and widespread sea level rise.

In addition, the new report states that anthropogenic climate change is leading to food and water stresses, population displacement, adverse health conditions, increased potential for human insecurity and sociopolitical conflicts. In particular, the report notes that these adverse humanitarian consequences of climate change disproportionately impact poor and otherwise vulnerable communities. Given the disparity between historical responsibilities for anthropogenic climate change—i.e., the poor are least responsible for contributing to this phenomenon—the report confirms that, as the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference declares, climate change is “a fundamental problem of global justice.”

In light of the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the report points out that humanity is quickly running out of time to prevent climate change from becoming irreversible. To this end, the report offers several principles for climate change mitigation and adapting efforts, including:

Adaptation planning and implementation can be enhanced through complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments; A first step towards adaptation to future climate change is reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability; Adaptation planning and implementation at all levels of governance are contingent on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions; [ … ] Decision support is most effective when it is sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies; Poor planning, overemphasizing short-term outcomes, or failing to sufficiently anticipate consequences can result in maladaptation; Limited evidence indicates a gap between global adaptation needs and the funds available for adaptation.

The Value of Prudence

Due to its unique scientific insights and thoughtful recommendations regarding mitigation and adaptation, WGII AR5 is an important contribution to the public discourse about anthropogenic climate change. At the same time, there appear to be two critiques that might be leveled against this report. The first is that the document commits Hume’s “is-ought fallacy,” wherein conclusions about what ought to be done are inferred from a particular circumstance that is. For example, someone might accept WGII AR5’s assessment of the climate science, but disagree that persons and communities ought to take particular mitigative or adaptative actions in light of it (e.g., exercise a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable). Additionally, someone might say that any mitigative or adaptative actions are unwarranted without absolute certainty regarding the anthropogenic causes and humanitarian consequences of climate change.

In response to these points, the USCCB’s Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good can provide a sort of bridge between what climate science tells us and the actions which persons and communities ought to take. The Bishops declare:

The virtue of prudence is paramount in addressing climate change…Prudence is intelligence applied to our actions. It allows us to discern what constitutes the common good in a given situation. Prudence requires a deliberate and reflective process that aids in the shaping of the community’s conscience. Prudence not only helps us identify the principles at stake in a given issue, but also moves us to adopt courses of action to protect the common good. Prudence is not, as popularly thought, simply a cautious and safe approach to decisions. Rather, it is a thoughtful, deliberate, and reasoned basis for taking or avoiding action to achieve a moral good.

In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus—even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious—justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind’s well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.

Although the USCCB does not emphasize that prudence requires other moral virtues to perfect a person’s appetites towards good action, the invocation of prudence provides a way for people of faith and goodwill to move from understanding the climate science that exists to the responses that ought to be pursued. Moreover, the virtue of prudence can help environmental advocates respond to claims that there is not enough certainty about the causes and consequences of climate change to undertake mitigation and adaptation initiatives. As such, the virtue of prudence is a distinct contribution that the Catholic Church can—and must—make to supplement WGII AR5 and continue supporting public conversation about anthropogenic climate change.


Dan DiLeo in Political Theology Today

Millennial writer Dan DiLeo has a new article on “Thomistic Virtue Jurisprudence and a National Carbon Tax” in Political Theology Today. He writes:

Several points must be effectively communicated: the ways that climate change viciously harms the poor; the need for carbon tax revenue to be refunded in a way that prioritizes the poor; and commitment to protect American producers under carbon taxation. To the extent that these steps are taken, it is increasingly likely that Americans will recognize the positive pedagogical function of a carbon tax and be disposed to support this policy. As such, Kaveny’s Thomistic virtue jurisprudence represents a powerful yet unrealized tool in the effort to enact a national carbon tax in the U.S.

The full article can be read here.


Expectations and Hopes for Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Have you ever seen an aspiring theologian fist pump like Tiger Woods? You have if you were anywhere near me last Friday when the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis has begun writing an encyclical addressing environmental challenges and “the ecology of man.”

Rumors of a possible environmental encyclical have been swirling since November, when Pope Francis met with Argentinian environmentalists about water and the controversial natural gas recovery method known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). For those with more experience working on environmental issues from a Catholic perspective, however, hope for an extensive papal treatise on ecology began when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became the first pope to take the name Francis after “the poor man of Assisi” whom the Church honors as Patron Saint of Those Who Promote Ecology.

Since my initial excitement over Friday’s announcement, I have begun reflecting more on both what will likely be contained in the document as well as what I hope Francis will include. Based on my experience of working on creation care and climate change from a Catholic perspective, what follows are my own expectations and hopes for what Francis might include in the Church’s first ecological encyclical.

Expectations

Since Pope John Paul II published his ecologically-groundbreaking 1990 World Day of Peace Message titled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, the Church’s approach to creation care has consistently been defined by several core elements that I expect Francis will include in his encyclical, among them:

  • God’s on-going presence in all creation which reflects God’s incarnation.
  • Intrinsic goodness of all creation that is independent of humanity.
  • Humanity’s role as stewards of creation, invited to use its gifts without exploiting it for superfluous desires.
  • Human ecology by which the Church recognizes that the protection and promotion of human life and dignity is inexorably connected to care for all of creation.
  • Care and justice for the poor and vulnerable who are disproportionately and unjustly harmed by environmental degradation.
  • Universal destination of created goods by which all persons have a right to share in the fruits of creation.
  • Respect for private property with the recognition that it is “subordinated to the right to common use” when some people lack basic goods (Laborem Exercens, #14).
  • Protection and promotion of the common good to which the climate and natural environment are central.
  • Application of the principle of subsidiarity which calls for the lowest possible but highest necessary level of government intervention necessary to protect the common good.
  • Intergenerational solidarity that calls us to hand on to posterity a clean and habitable environment.
  • Invocation of prudence which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes as “intelligence applied to our actions” and recognizes as “paramount in addressing climate change” (Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good).
  • Recognition of anthropogenic climate change as a moral issue and the need for all people of faith and goodwill to address it as such (cf. Catholic Climate Covenant’s Catholic Teachings).

Hopes

Since his election, Pope Francis has shown a willingness to address contemporary issues by courageously challenging those persons and systems that hinder the in-breaking and growth of God’s Kingdom. Given this, I have more than just a passing hope that Francis might also include the following elements in his ecological encyclical:

  • Advocacy for an economic price to be placed on greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide.
  • Commentary about how current economic systems and investment strategies foster or undermine environmental sustainability and climate stability.
  • Condemnation of industry-funded efforts to deny and/or confuse the science of anthropogenic climate change.
  • Reflections on contemporary energy issues, especially the transition to renewable energy and the controversial practice of fracking (cf. Catholic Climate Covenant’s On Energy).

Conclusion

In less than one year, the “Francis Effect” has instilled a sense of optimism in many people who had otherwise lost hope for the Church. As the world quickly runs out of time to address some of its most pressing ecological challenges, especially anthropogenic climate change, confirmation that Francis is working on an ecological encyclical is cause for similar hope. In the wake of Francis’ challenges to economic structures that oppress the poorest people in the world, the news of an encyclical on the environment will undoubtedly inspire even more people of faith and goodwill to finally address seriously the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. You may not quite think that this is cause for a celebratory fist pump, but Catholic environmentalists like me are suddenly filled with an energetic optimism that, I imagine, is very similar to sinking a long birdie putt to set up a final round charge in a major golf championship.