At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both “the human environment” and the natural environment.
The issue of global climate change raises two central religious and moral concerns: “How are we to fulfill God’s call to be stewards of creation in an age when we may have the capacity to alter that creation significantly, and perhaps irrevocably? How can we as a ‘family of nations’ exercise stewardship in a way that respects and protects the integrity of God’s creation and provides for the common good, as well as for economic and social progress based on justice?”
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 2001
The Framework Convention on Global Climate Change
At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, more than 150 countries signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change. It has since been ratified by more than 180 countries including the United States. The signatories agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The agreement was voluntary. The parties at Rio also recognized “common but differentiated” responsibilities between developed and developing countries.
In 1995, the parties to the Climate Convention admitted that voluntary measures were not working. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was established with binding targets for industrialized countries, but not for the developing ones. The United States has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Despite US opposition, Russia’s signing of the Protocol in December 2004 placed the Protocol in effect on February 16, 2005.
The Current Political Debate in the United States
The politics of global climate change is fueled by very divergent perceptions of the economic, social, and political costs. While some still question the basic science of climate change, most of the public debate focuses on proposed solutions. Some fear that moving too fast will cripple economic growth across the globe. Others fear that waiting too long will necessitate more drastic measures later. Poorer countries blame richer ones for creating the problem in the first place. Richer countries spar over goals and procedures and increasingly want the poorer countries to fully participate.
Two recent events affect the immediate future of possible action regarding climate change. First, at the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles in July, world leaders declared that “climate change is a serious and long term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe” and that human activities “contribute in large part to increases in greenhouse gases associated with the warming of the Earth’s surface.” It was also the first time climate change had been addressed at a G-8 meeting; however, the meeting produced no concrete actions. In light of this fact, global talks in November 2006 and recent talks in Australia among a select group of nations focused on moving beyond Kyoto. Second, after virtually no action for several years on climate change, this summer Congressional debate ensued and two measures passed. The first was a bill by Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) that offers incentives for market-based voluntary reductions. The Hagel bill essentially codifies the Administration’s approach of supporting additional research and relying upon market-based incentives. It does authorize technology transfers to developing countries. Hagel’s approach was incorporated into the Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed into law by President Bush. The other piece of legislation was a resolution by Senator Bingaman (D-NM) that acknowledges the risks that climate change poses and that human activities contribute to climate change. This is the first time that a chamber of Congress has so strongly admitted the problem and its human causes. The McCain/Lieberman climate bill that would have mandated emission cutbacks was defeated. There is still no substantive action in the House. The Senate is expected to take up other climate-related legislation in 2006.
USCCB Policy Position
In their June 2001 statement, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good, the bishops note: “Although debate continues about the extent and impact of this warming, it could be quite serious … Consequently, it seems prudent not only to continue to research and monitor this phenomenon, but to take steps now to mitigate possible negative effects in the future.” The statement also calls for a less polarized public debate and more focus on the global common good. The bishops call for thoughtful dialogue that relies on the political virtue of prudence. Prudence is not simply a cautious and safe approach, but rather a thoughtful, deliberate, and reasoned basis for taking or avoiding action to achieve a moral good.
Specifically, USCCB supports strong U.S. leadership and advocates for much greater assistance to the developing nations, particularly in providing economic development aid to enable poorer countries to adopt state-of-the-art technology. The centerpiece of USCCB’s efforts on climate change will be to focus attention on the needs of the poor as they will suffer disproportionately from the potential impacts of climate change. The bishops also call for greater emphasis on energy conservation, the development of renewable and clean energy resources, and assistance to industries and workers displaced during the transition to new and more benign energy production.
The bishops’ primary concern in the current public debate is that the needs of poor people and developing nations be addressed. These countries have a right to economic development that reduces poverty. Poorer countries cannot be made to bear an undue burden of the global adjustments needed to address climate change. USCCB supports legislative provisions to assist the poor and adversely affected communities in mitigating the effects of global warming in the U.S. and developing countries. These measures must include additional foreign aid for sustainable development as well as technological assistance in adopting more benign and efficient energy production.
In June 2005 Bishop Ricard wrote to the US Senate supporting sections of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that would help mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, particularly as they affect the poor and other vulnerable populations.
Contact your Senators and Congressional representatives to urge greater U.S. leadership to address climate change and to provide significant economic and technical support to developing countries. We also strongly urge you to assist your bishop in sending a cover letter and a copy of the bishops’ statement, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good, to your members in both the House and Senate.