Change the climate in Washington

The poor are victims of our failure to protect the environment.

Important climate change legislation outlined last summer provided funds to help poor countries adapt to the effects of climate change. Just before the Senate was to consider the legislation, however, these provisions had vanished.

“To be honest with you,” a Senate aide told representatives of the faith community, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “the provisions don’t get us any of the extra votes we need.”

The aide confirmed our fears: The poor have few advocates on Capitol Hill. The big interests, especially energy companies and environmental groups, will be the winners, while low-income families in the United States and the poorest people around the world will be the losers.

The moral force of the religious community eventually succeeded in restoring some of the original money, but it will not be nearly enough.

Faithful environmentalists
From the U.S. bishops and the pope to national Catholic organizations and informed parishioners, Catholics are concerned about making the poor a priority as our society addresses climate change and its impacts. Why?

It is about our faith. As Matthew 25 tells us, our very salvation depends on seeing the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters in need.

It is about our values. Human life and human dignity are the foundations of Catholic social teaching. We are called to protect all life and promote each person’s dignity, including both current populations and future generations that are threatened by a dramatically altered climate.

It is about honoring the Creator and sharing creation’s gifts with all.

And it is about being leaven in society. In their most recent statement calling Catholics to be faithful citizens, the U.S. bishops say we have an obligation to be engaged in the public policy arena, to share our core values, and to shape a just society. In an election year, it is all the more important for us to become educated about all issues, including the environment. When it comes to the impacts of climate change, we need to urge our elected officials to place the needs of the poor at home and abroad at the center of their deliberations.

As state and federal policy makers wrestle with the best emissions reductions policies and decide who will share the benefits or suffer the burdens of these approaches, Catholics must raise questions about the human impacts and moral dimensions of climate change. Using the guidance of the bishops’ 2001 statement on climate change, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, we can measure public policies based on three broad themes: prudence that requires wise action now to address problems that will grow in magnitude and consequences; the pursuit of the common good rather than the demands of narrow interests; and a priority for the poor, who will bear the greatest burdens of climate change.

These principles help inform the bishops’ public policy recommendations. Government action limiting emissions should generate sufficient revenue to offset inevitable increases in domestic energy costs for low-income people. U.S. workers most affected by a shift to renewable energy should be compensated for their loss of income and assisted with job transitions. Finally the poorest nations need assistance in their efforts to adapt to climate change. Technology should be shared with these countries to help develop their economies in more sustainable ways.

Climate change will require lifestyle changes, to be sure. Upgrading lightbulbs, planting trees, and living simply are important ways to show love of creation and Creator. But exercising our faith in the public square and becoming a voice for the voiceless will be an equally important witness.

Bearing the brunt
Climate change is already having real economic and social impacts on the least of our brothers and sisters. In June 2007 the bishops of Alaska held an all-day hearing on climate change. Among the most remarkable witnesses that day was a Newtok villager, Stanley Tom. Current warming impacts the poles more dramatically than the tropics. In Alaska the ice that normally protects Tom’s village from fall storms and ocean surges forms later and thinner; now the village regularly floods. Newtok and several other villages in Alaska must now be relocated at considerable expense to the state government and the villagers.

In the least developed countries, many of the world’s poor live by subsistence farming on marginal land. As climate change unfolds, these farmers and shepherds will be forced to abandon their land and livestock in hopes of a better life in already crowded cities and slums.

The very poor have no Plan B afforded many of us: no insurance, no rainy-day fund, no rich uncle. They will rely on the generosity of wealthier nations, churches, and individuals. Well-crafted public policies could help. Are those of us largely responsible for climate change ready to respond charitably to their needs and urge our elected officials to place the poor at the center of their deliberations?

Choose life
Climate change is an emerging threat to human life; indeed all life. Our grandchildren may some day ask us what we did in the face of such a threat. One response: We kept living unsustainable lifestyles. Another answer: We took seriously our church leaders’ call to address climate change and responded prudently and urgently. We were a voice for the poor and promoted the common good over our own self-interest. In doing so, we spared humankind and all of creation from the worst effects of a warming planet.

As the Book of Deuteronomy says: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so you and your descendants might live” (30:19).

Daniel Misleh is executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.

6 websites to help Catholics save the earth
16. Find out what Catholics are doing:

17. Read the U.S. bishops’ statement on climate change: Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good at globalclimate.shtml.

18. See what the church is telling the state through letters, testimony, and action alerts:
19. Take action by joining your diocesan or state Catholic conference legislative network. Find state conferences at and diocesan conferences at

20. Know the presidential candidates’ positions: or

21. Learn about public policy on climate change:

All active news articles