Jesuits schools explore their role in addressing climate change at Loyola Chicago conference

Chicago — How can Jesuit institutions worldwide make a unified difference on climate change?

That is the central, underlying question at the second annual at Loyola University Chicago Climate Change Conference, which opened Thursday on the school’s North Shore Campus. The conference, which continues through Saturday, is co-sponsored by the six Jesuit universities of the upper Midwest and aims to “tend to” and serve the needs of the Earth at this crucial time in planetary history.

The conference literature set its purpose as exploring “the implications of ‘tending earth’ through an interdisciplinary reflection on the ethical principles, policies, and actions needed to combat the crisis of global climate change.”

The collation of Jesuit schools is promising for the future of Jesuit networking in addressing global issues of justice and sustainability. The co-sponsoring universities joining Loyola are Creighton University (Omaha, Neb.), John Carroll University (Cleveland), Marquette University (Milwaukee), University of Detroit Mercy (Detroit), and Xavier University (Cincinnati).

Two questions of significant interest for this conference is whether the loose network of Jesuit higher education institutions can work more closely and effectively on climate change, and what a concerted set of actions and programs from them might achieve as an educational statement to the nation and a model for concerned and committed institutions, organizations and corporations of all kinds.

In an opening poetic, prophetic prayer, Jesuit Fr. Steve Mitten, spiritual director and resident ecology faculty at Loyola’s Retreat and Ecology Campus, stated in part:

Creating God, Big Love…
Global climate change? Sea rise?  Who would have thought?
It’s not what our grandparents taught.
When it first came, we laughed, it couldn’t be the sea
In a wild-child’s dream it should fly, from some great cloudless height
Should cry like a hawk, red-tailed, high and sweet?
Who would have guessed it would first grab the feet like the sea?
It did we.

The conference’s opening session was foundational and informational. Nancy Tuchman, founding director of Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability, welcomed the full house of nearly 160 participants from across the U.S. and Sweden, Spain, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Tuchman highlighted the important link for Jesuit universities between climate change and social justice, noting that there are currently 10 million climate refugees globally and that there will be a projected 1 billion by 2050 -- a mere 35 years from now. She noted that universities around the world are stepping forward with courses, conferences, action and advocacy to address the issues of climate change and justice.

She then laid out the underlying question of this conference: Given the unparalleled Jesuit educational network nationally and internationally, with its professed mission and institutional commitment to social justice, how can all its members speak out on climate justice with one voice? How can the significant resources of this network be leveraged to make a significant difference for the future of the planet?

The bulk of the morning session focused on short reports mapping the “sustainability assets” of the universities represented. The first report identified four “general assets,” programs that provide valuable services for any campus:

  • the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and its STARS program, which allows schools to track and self-report their sustainability performances;
  • the Catholic Climate Covenant, whose resources include the St. Francis Pledge;
  • the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which promotes climate action plans for climate neutrality and sustainability.

Many of the U.S. Jesuit universities already participate in these programs.

The individual Jesuit universities at the conference each reported on the sustainability resources and activities on their campuses: ranging from sustainability offices to courses and degree programs; environmental building criteria to summer camps; water conservation programs to faculty research, community gardens, student groups, alternative energy sourcing and more. 

The morning session left only a short time to raise the questions of collaboration, developing a united voice and leveraging these institutions’ academic and moral authority for social change. To further pursue this question -- definitely the most critical and promising question of this gathering -- a list of contacts at each campus is being compiled so an ongoing working group can form and explore it post-conference.

The day closed with a plenary lecture by George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), who highlighted the need for better energy storage capability in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in addressing climate change. 

He described JCESR’s efforts to develop batteries capable of five times the power storage of contemporary batteries at one-fifth their current cost within five years, in order to challenge the cost effectiveness of fossil fuels. He also called attention to the promising new research paradigm that JCESR represents.

Friday morning’s program will feature a panel discussion on “The Risks, Nuts, and Bolts of Divestment” from fossil fuels. Panelists will include representatives from a university that has divested, one that chose not to, one in the midst of the discussion, and a representative of the Jesuit social and international ministries office for the upper Midwest.

Afternoon panels will consider ethical, policy and motivational issues related to climate change, followed by a poster session on “Sustainability in Research, Teaching, and Advocacy” and a Student Sustainability Summit.

[Jesuit Fr. James Hug, former president of the D.C.-based, social justice-focused Center for Concern, is attending the Loyola Chicago Climate Change Conference and filing reports for and the Ignatian Solidarity Network.]

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