The National Catholic Review
On the moral demands of environmental policy
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The next few months will be critical for the development of a new national energy policy in the United States, which is arguably the most important issue on our national agenda. There are two reasons for this. First, large amounts of energy are vital to every facet of our modern lives; second, the environmental impact of energy use is global in scope and has reached a crisis stage. The latter point has been made clear in recent calls for action to address global climate change by many leading scientific organizations, including the National Academies of Science and Engineering.

An important ethical obligation should be a central consideration in the formulation of any new national energy policy. Here I examine the advice being given to the administration in light of this ethical obligation and describe significant new initiatives taken by Christian churches, like “The Catholic Climate Covenant” with its “St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor.”

At an Energy Crossroads

We in the United States, and our friends in other industrialized countries, have been traveling down an energy road that is coming to an end. The intensive energy system and lifestyle we have built on fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas and coal), which serve as a model for the rest of the world, will not “scale up”; there is no way to extend them to developing countries. A consideration of China, India or developing countries in Africa and South America makes this clear.

Per-person energy consumption rates in China are still about one-sixth those in the United States, but let us imagine they rise to our level. China’s catching up alone would require roughly a doubling in world energy production rates. Even the most ardent petroleum-supply advocate would admit that resource limitations do not allow for such a doubling. Additionally, were China to reach our per capita fossil fuel consumption level, the resulting increase in world carbon dioxide emissions would be catastrophic in terms of global climate change.

This inability to “scale up” our current energy system and lifestyle to include the rest of the world points out an important ethical obligation: it is not ethically acceptable that our current energy use requires less-developed countries to remain in poverty; nor is it acceptable that our carbon dioxide emissions bring about global climate change that will be particularly harmful to the poor. The ethical conclusion that follows from this analysis is profound. A new U.S. energy policy must take into account the welfare of all seven billion people on earth.

In recent years the rationale for United States energy initiatives has most often been expressed in terms of narrowly defined self-interest. Such an approach is flawed from the start, and the resulting policies have widened the gap between affluent and poor countries. We need to build an energy system and lifestyle that can be extended to developing countries. A new U.S. national energy plan should move us toward an energy system that “scales up.” To do anything less is to ignore our responsibilities to the populations of developing countries and to future generations, including our own children and grandchildren.

Elements of a New National Energy Plan

What is the solution? Organizations like the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the National Resources Defense Council and others have advised the new administration primarily to expand energy conservation and to develop renewable energy.

A major energy conservation effort plus the use of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar would “scale up” for use by developing countries. The enormity and sustainability of these energy forms mean that our use does not preclude our neighbor’s use. Use of renewable energy also avoids to a great extent the production of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. If energy use in the United States and other industrialized countries were based primarily on renewable sources, that system could be adopted by developing countries. Then if China reached a per-person energy consumption rate equal to that of the United States, it would not pose catastrophic environmental problems.

In a lecture at Miami University this year, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, addressed the energy and environment topics he covers in his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He likened the folly of continuing down our current energy path to pouring money into typewriter research and development after society had entered the computer era.

A major change of direction is now required because expansion of the status quo is both unsustainable and unethical. The scientific community’s advice to wean the nation off fossil fuels and move it onto renewable energy sources would, of course, satisfy both problems.

What Faith Communities Can Do

“Our religious communities are deeply important...almost the only institutions left in our society that posit some goal other than accumulation for our existence here on this planet,” writes Bill McKibben in God and the Environmental Crisis. A prominent American environmentalist, McKibben believes that religious communities have an important role to play in societal energy and environmental matters and in the development of a national energy plan. The role of churches and religious organizations follows from the ethical nature of energy and environment stewardship.

Religious organizations have long recognized the moral issues associated with food; “feeding the hungry” is a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition. Local congregations and regional and national organizations are taking part in a variety of efforts to address global climate change. These include educational activities to increase awareness of the problem, concrete steps to reduce consumption of fossil fuels in churches and their institutions, and development of a “Caring for God’s Creation” element within the liturgy.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other organizations, like California Interfaith Power and Light, have sponsored a series of meetings focused on global climate change that have given birth to an impressive nationwide program of activities.

In particular, the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change, established in 2006 under the auspices of the U.S.C.C.B., announced in April “The Catholic Climate Covenant” and “The St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor.” The covenant and pledge bring the Catholic social justice tradition to bear on the current energy and environmental crisis. In making the pledge, dioceses, parishes and other organizations will promise 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 reality of climate change and its moral dimensions;

• assess their participation in contributing to climate change;

• act to change their choices and behaviors contributing to climate change;

• advocate Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they have impact on the poor and vulnerable.

At the international level, Pope Benedict XVI has shown leadership in addressing energy and environmental issues: “Today the great gift of God’s Creation is exposed to serious dangers and lifestyles which can degrade it. Environmental pollution is making particularly unsustainable the lives of the poor of the world…. We must pledge ourselves to take care of creation and to share its resources in solidarity” (Statement for the World Day of Peace, January 2008).

The Vatican has also completed an installation of 2,400 solar panels atop the Paul VI Audience Hall. These provide electricity to the hall and surrounding buildings; any excess feeds the electrical grid. Earlier, the Vatican cut energy consumption in St. Peter’s Basilica by 40 percent, principally by upgrading the entire lighting system. Such leadership could motivate other churches and religious groups to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Increasingly, religious activism on energy and environment is grounded in serious scholarship at the interface of religion and ecology. In a lead article in Reflections (Spring 2007), the journal of Yale Divinity School, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim wrote: “A many-faceted alliance of religion and ecology along with a new global ethics is awakening around the planet.... This is a new moment for the world’s religions, and they have a vital role to play in the emergence of a more comprehensive environmental ethics.”

A new U.S. national energy plan should move us toward a future energy system that is sustainable and “scales up.” It could be adopted by developing countries. Such a plan, based on a noble vision and purpose, would also serve as a unifying cause, which is sorely needed today in the United States and throughout the world. Concrete initiatives like “The Catholic Climate Covenant” and “The St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor” enjoin the churches to play an important role in education; they also encourage the implementation of a national energy policy based on concern for others throughout the world.

William H. Rauckhorst, a physics professor who has taught courses on energy for 35 years and a former senior administrator at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has worked with the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration

Comments

MORRIS PONGRATZ | 7/19/2009 - 8:14pm
An article on energy choice and no mention of the word "nuclear"?  Furure historians will get quite a chuckle when they read this.
William Watts | 7/6/2009 - 9:44pm

 

 

I'm willing to set aside the controversy over carbon dioxide emissions and "climate change" which Professor Rauckhorst treats as settled science as "old news". But, his failure to mention the economic risk for developing countries and our own poor is a prominent weakness in his article.

The impact of shifting to an untried, unproven national plan involving conservation and renewable energy could have disastrous economic consequences for the poor in terms of job losses and rapidly escalating prices for many of the necessities of life. Yet, Professor Rauckhorst is willing to overlook this risk in his rabid advocacy of a new environmental policy, and he has a lot of company.

The Catholic bishops are rushing to join the environmental movement without doing their homework on the potential effects on God's most vulnerable children. In their rush to become players in the latest political game in the U.S., the bishops have overlooked estimates of job losses and an annual increase in the cost of living of $3,000 to $4,000 for a family of four from the cap & trade bill passed by of our corrupt House of Representatives and unread by it's members.

I don't oppose a revised environmental policy to address global climate change. But, I am willing to wait until the science has become settled before exposing the poor to possible job losses and a sharp rise in their cost of living. And, the more I hear the word "crisis" and see legislation passed unread by political bodies with a record of disregard for the interests of the poor, the more I believe that I, Professor Rauckhorst, and the Catholic bishops need to do our homework before supporting a risky environmental policy that could hurt our low income brothers and sisters the most.

God expects no less from us.

David Reed | 7/3/2009 - 4:40pm

I applaud this article!  One problem, though, that I've often encountered when trying to say the exact same things as Prof. Rauckhorst is that our parishes and are clergy seem unable to make as big of a stink about our disastrous treatment of the environment as they do about various abortion laws in this country.  At my home parish so many people are willing to go with their Rosaries and pray in a circle around the local abortion clinic, and they are willing to march for life during Lent.  But, these same people drive Yukon's and Escalades with bumper stickers that say "Drill Now!" giving the impression that they don't care one way or the other about God's green planet, making them neo-Gnostics in their quest to ignore the groaning of creation (see all of Romans 8), which Paul says "also needs redemption."

I don't understand why when the Vatican has "Gone Green" Catholics who claim to follow the teachings of the Church "pick and choose" when it comes to the environment.  It's almost as if many American Catholics are saying "When the Pope talks about abortion... that's not optional... but when he talks about War and/or the Environment... well... that's optional."  The problem is... picking and choosing is just that... picking and choosing...

Though it may not seem like it, what we're doing to the environment is going to cause birth defects and miscarriages-in fact, what we've done to the environment already is causing the aforementioned to take place.  Though we may not see this as a "form of abortion" it is certainly an assault on the lives of the unborn.

I hope and pray that more Catholics will realize that to be "Pro-Life" means much more than simply being against abortion-it also has something to do with Creation...

 

David

LEONARD VILLA | 6/30/2009 - 10:15am

It's important to save and not squander energy.  However before moral principles are announced and applied,  it first ought to be determined how much of what is being advanced as energy-saving and favoring the environment is supported by hard science rather than ideology and/or junk science.  Much of what is advanced in the name of environment and energy is questionable to say the least.