Catholic Concerns About U.S. Climate Change Policy

The U.S. bishops and most Church leaders oppose this month’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but there’s consensus on the need for good environmental stewardship.

Vincent Fusca of Pittsburgh demonstrates outside the White House to show support for President Donald Trump on June 3.
Vincent Fusca of Pittsburgh demonstrates outside the White House to show support for President Donald Trump on June 3. (photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s June 1 decision to opt out of the Paris climate change agreement was met with a strong wave of criticism from the Church hierarchy, as well as many lay Catholic leaders.

The President’s decision not to honor the U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement is deeply troubling,” said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, who expressed in a June 1 USCCB statement the view shared by a wide contingent of Catholic leaders, from the Vatican Secretary of State to domestic organizations like Catholic Charities USA.

Signed in late 2015 by 195 nations, the Paris agreement calls for participating nations to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which many in the scientific community believe are a contributing factor to a global average temperature that is on the rise.

By limiting emissions, the Paris agreement aims to prevent the global average temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius higher than its pre-industrial era level, a threshold many analysts believe is necessary to stay below in order to avoid potentially-devastating environmental consequences.

Trump cited American sovereignty and economic interests as reasons for pulling out of the agreement, which was signed by the U.S. under President Obama. Given the United States’ status as both a major emitter of greenhouse gasses, but also as a pivotal world-leader, the country’s withdrawal from the agreement is seen as a major stumbling block to Paris Agreement goals.

“President Trump’s decision will harm the people of the United States and the world, especially the poorest, most vulnerable communities,” Bishop Cantu’s statement continued, citing rising sea levels, intensified storms, and more frequent droughts as evidence of the already present effects of climate change. “I can only hope that the President will propose concrete ways to address global climate change and promote environmental stewardship.”


Work Undone?

The Catholic Church played a pivotal role in bringing a moral voice to bear on the conference that produced the Paris agreement, the COP21 Climate Change Summit. Pope Francis had stated that he hoped his encyclical Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), released a few months before the summit, would persuade leaders to boldly address concerns about a warming climate due to human activity. And the Global Catholic Climate Movement presented COP21 leaders with a petition urging action that was signed by more than 900,000 Catholics from around the world.

Many of the Catholic leaders who helped influence humanity-influenced climate change action in the U.S. were among the first to rebuke Trump’s unraveling of their work. Leaders representing 13 Catholic organizations, including Franciscan Action Network, the National Council of Catholic Women, and Catholic Health Association, signed a letter from the Catholic Climate Covenant imploring Trump to “reconsider this path.”

Dan Misleh, executive director of the U.S.-based Catholic Climate Covenant, says he was not surprised by Trump’s decision, but nonetheless “couldn’t help but feel a great deal of sadness,” especially for vulnerable populations and future generations who he believes will be most adversely affected by an unnaturally changing climate.

“To me, this decision is a callous disregard for [those groups] made under the misguided notion that there may be potential short-term economic gain.”


Dissenting Voices

But not all Catholics see it that way. Leaders from a smattering of Catholic organizations expressed their support for Trump’s action, and their deeper disapproval for Catholic involvement in international environmental efforts like the Paris Agreement.

“In all honesty, I don’t think he went far enough,” said Michael Hichborn, executive director of the Lepanto Institute, an organization dedicated to calling out Catholic organizations that it perceives are defying Church teaching. “It was a bad policy, politically and economically speaking, and morally, we have no obligation to remain with it.”

Hichborn doesn’t oppose efforts like the Paris agreement because he denies moral obligations to be good stewards of creation or to help the poor. Instead, he doesn’t find the science underlying claims that human activity is causing climate change to be convincing.

There are other Catholics who share his views, but they are increasingly in the minority. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 9% of Catholic U.S. adults disagreed with the statement that human activity was contributing to a warming planet, a smaller figure than the corresponding percentage of the general U.S. population (10%). Meanwhile, 68% of Catholics stated that they agreed with the statement, while 23% stated they were unsure.

Climate change skepticism among Catholics stems from several factors. For one, some believe that the findings of active climatologists — who overwhelmingly believe there is scientific evidence that human activity is causing climate change — are impacted by the influence of money in scientific research to the point of being unreliable.

“Research results are pre-determined by the money that is being poured into it,” says Steven Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute. “If you don’t produce [research that concludes there is a climate change crisis], you don’t get funded.”

Mosher, who also praised Trump’s pull-out from the Paris agreement, doesn’t necessarily deny that human activity is contributing to climate change — he just thinks projected consequences are over-blown, fueled by “hysteria.”

“We’re certainly capable of harming ourselves and mismanaging the world,” said Mosher, who said more drastic projections of temperature increases would justify more drastic responses. “But a modest rise in carbon dioxide is not going to have any significant impact on the human race in years to come.”

Mosher added that he believes the negative consequences of a slightly warming earth could be outweighed by potential positive developments — such as new shipping routes in the Arctic Circle and longer growing seasons in the north.

“When you break down the costs and the benefits, crippling the economy now — which will have a disproportionate effect on the poor — is not worth what amounts to an insignificant reduction in projected warming,” he said.


Common Ground

Catholics on different sides of this issue may not agree on policy solutions, or even the science underlying the whole debate. But they can find common ground in the moral and theological principles at play.

One is the truth that environmental stewardship is a matter of morality. Mosher referred to stewardship of creation as the first commandment that Adam and Eve received in Genesis. And Hichborn added that there are moral dimensions to the use of resources as well, giving the example of upstream river pollution resulting in contamination downstream as an instance of immoral mismanagement of God’s creation.

Another area of agreement is the danger and immorality of population control, which is all too often an inseparable element of secular environmentalism. Catholics, whether they are convinced that man-made climate change is occurring or not, should never condone practices that undermine the sanctity of human life, such as abortion or contraception.

But while Mosher and Hichborn both believe the population control agenda is too deeply embedded in globalist institutions like the U.N. for Catholics to see these as effective vehicles for the type of “integral ecology” promoted in Laudato Si, Misleh of Catholic Climate Covenant sees areas for principled, but prudent collaboration.

“For example, many [secular environmentalists] do work hard to find ways to limit CO2 and other drivers of climate change,” he said. “Adding the Catholic voice to these efforts can complement their work and move the country and the world in a more positive direction. But our efforts should never mean we compromise our values or be silent when we clearly disagree.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.