California legislators, bishops highlight 'Laudato Si'' in pushing clean energy bill

This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

Nearly every state across America has activities underway related to Pope Francis’ encyclical, "Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home." That includes California, where lawmakers are in the final stages of debating two bills aimed at addressing climate change and reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Golden State is often a testbed for policies and new technologies later implemented by other states, for instance, electric vehicles and incorporation of renewable energy. Though California represents the seventh largest economy in the world and the 20th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, among U.S. states it is the fifth lowest emitter per capita, according to a May 2014 California Environmental Protection Agency study, which used 2010 greenhouse gas emissions data.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has championed Senate Bill 350, known as the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015. SB 350 would create or expand three related clean-energy goals to be achieved by 2030:

  • reducing by 50 percent petroleum used in motor vehicles;
  • procuring half of its electricity from renewable resources;
  • doubling energy efficiency of existing buildings.

The bill, along with SB 32, which would set a greenhouse gas emissions target of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, are among the 300-plus bills on the table for the state Assembly before its regular sessions conclude Friday. On Sept. 2, the Assembly sent a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown that would divest state pension funds from coal companies.

Two days earlier, at the invitation of de León, a Catholic, Bishops Jaime Soto of Sacramento and Stephen Blaire of Stockton expressed their support for SB 350 in a capitol forum on climate leadership at a session with legislators and their staffs in the governor’s offices.

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Blaire, in prepared remarks, said the Aug. 31 session was to help provide policymakers with "the insight and the courage to move forward legislation that serves the common good." Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference, in his own comments noted that in the encyclical, "Pope Francis places the poor and the marginalized at the center of renewing the face of the Earth."

"Pope Francis also reminds us of our moral responsibility to be stewards of the common good of creation, as well as brothers and sisters of one human family with room at the table for everyone," he said.

"What has long been our tradition on the culture of life, he's really now proposing what we would call the ecology of life," Soto said.

Blaire added that bishops have an appropriate role in advocating for the values espoused by Francis. 

"We feel we have a right, like any other organization, to support values for the common good," he said. "The role of the church in public policy is to lift up values. I believe it is appropriate for the church to be a voice that calls for truly addressing these issues that affect the Earth so much."

Blaire acknowledged that "These issues have very real implications for people's jobs and how they sustain their families. That's why we have to promote respectful dialogue."

"We have to have mercy on each other, to acknowledge that we are all responsible for the current state situation and that solutions won't come from finger-pointing," the bishop said.

De León said at the event that the encyclical is not a policy document but it is a political call to action: "It urges us as policy makers to muster courage."

The California Catholic Conference described SB 350 as an important step in local implementation of Laudato Si’, which it said "reminds us of urgent moral imperatives and valuable policy implications that must be considered to address environmental issues impacting the health of our communities, especially for our most vulnerable."

Ray Burnell of the California Catholic Conference told NCR that SB 350 and SB 32 "quantifiably reduce the emissions harmful to the planet and the health of our communities, especially for those struggle in poverty and developing countries."

The California Nurses Association has backed both bills as key in addressing childhood asthma as well as climate change. According to the 2014 State of the Air report from the American Lung Association, California is home to the five most polluted cities in America in terms of ozone and particulate matter. Eight in 10 in the state live in areas with unhealthy air.

Burnell also pointed to estimates that SB 32 would nearly halve per-capita fuel costs for California households by 2035.

State senators have also noted the economic benefits of the bill. SB 350 is estimated to produce upwards of 1 million jobs in the course of meeting the 2030 goal, according to a University of California-Berkeley study.

California's previous GHG reduction commitment have powered the state’s advanced energy industry -- the largest in the U.S. at 430,000 workers and growing -- and private sector job growth that has led the nation since the recession ended.

California’s job growth rate was 40 percent higher than the national average last year, and the solar industry has been growing even faster; in 2013 it grew 10 times faster than the statewide average, and this year it will add about 10,000 jobs to its previous total. The clean energy sector has helped the state increase manufacturing exports too, nearly 43 percent from 2009 to 2014, supporting family-wage jobs.

[Marie Venner is chair of the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board subcommittee on Climate Change, Energy, and Sustainability and former co-chair of the Risk and Resilience Planning and Analysis subcommittee. She is also a member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.]

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