Catholic climate petition to Trump surpasses 15,000 signatures

Boca Chita Key in Biscayne National Park, Florida, with the Miami skyline in the distance (National Park Service/Judd Patterson)

Boca Chita Key in Biscayne National Park, Florida, with the Miami skyline in the distance (National Park Service/Judd Patterson)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Updated March 16 at 1 p.m. Central 

More than 15,000 Catholics have now signed onto a petition asking President Donald Trump not to abandon U.S. actions to address climate change, in the face of numerous signs of his intentions to do just that.

The Catholic Climate Covenant provided the update March 15 on the petition it first released in mid-December. The petition singles out preserving three central pieces of climate change policy under former President Barack Obama:

  • Remaining in the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. signed along with 194 other nations, including China and India, in December 2015 at COP21, the annual United Nations climate summit. The climate accord committed all countries to take steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit average global temperature rise between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius — a threshold viewed by scientists as when the most severe impacts of climate change would become irreversible.
  • Continuing the Clean Power Plan rules for existing coal- and gas-fired power plants issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015. The rules, a key piece of the U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement, seek to limit carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030, and provide states latitude in how they meet their specific targets. The plan remains in limbo in a federal appeals court.
  • Maintaining financing for the Green Climate Fund, which seeks $100 billion annually by 2020 from industrialized countries to assist developing nations in mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change. The U.S. has pledged an initial $3 billion to the fund, with its last payment of $500 million made during Obama's final week as president.

More: Speak loud, act local, environmental groups tell Catholics in Trump era (Feb. 7, 2017)

In Congress on Wednesday (March 15), 17 Republicans in the House of Representatives presented a resolution acknowledging negative climate impacts "that are expected to worsen in every region of the United States ... hitting vulnerable populations hardest."

The climate resolution pledges the House to move the climate conversation toward solutions, "to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact."

"With forty percent of Florida's population at risk from sea-level rise, my state is on the front lines of climate change," Rep. Carlos Curbelo, one of the co-sponsors, said in a statement. He referenced effects his constituents feel now: chronic flooding, coral bleaching and threatened freshwater supplies in the Everglades.

"We cannot ignore these challenges and every Member of Congress has a responsibility to our constituents and future generations to support market-based solutions, investments, and innovations that could alleviate the effects of climate change and make our nation more resilient," he said.

In a statement Thursday, Venice, Fla., Bishop Frank Dewane, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the bishops "welcome the commitment ... to engage in constructive dialogue to protect our common home and to recognize the impact of climate change." 

""Environmental challenges are not going away," Dewane continued, "and it is a sign of hope to see political leaders rise to meet a challenge that is the common responsibility of all."

Las Cruces, N.M., Jorge Cantu, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, added that the stewardship of creation -- and particularly, climate change, what Francis identified as "one of the principle challenges facing humanity in our day" -- is an issue "that rises above political partisanship."

"It is in the interest of lawmakers in all parties to recognize the protection of the environment as an important responsibility and to explore the numerous rationales for taking action," the New Mexico bishop said. 

Jose Aguto, associate director of Catholic Climate Covenant, told Catholic News Service that the organization worked with House Republicans on the measure and has prepared a campaign at the parish level to support its adoption. It also joined 13 other Catholic organizations in a letter to Congress endorsing the resolution and encouraging House members to join the Climate Solutions Caucus, which currently comprises 13 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

Speaking with reporters March 14, Curbelo, co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus, said that there is "growing interest and attention to this issue" among his Republican colleagues. He said climate change is "a major challenge that we face as a nation" and called for bipartisan policies promoting clean energy, reducing emissions and investing in infrastructure, such as coastal areas like Louisiana and the Florida Keys, to make the U.S. more resilient to climate impacts.

Catholic Relief Services president and CEO Sean Callahan applauded the Republican climate resolution, saying, "The time is long past for climate change to be a partisan issue, and actions like the introduction of this climate resolution and growing numbers joining the Climate Solutions Caucus are welcome signs that policymakers are heeding his call."

Each of the programs outlined in the Catholic Climate Covenant petition are under threat under Trump, who has called climate change "a hoax" created by the Chinese. A budget proposal from the Trump administration has called for slashing the EPA budget by 31 percent, or $2.6 billion. 

The president has been ambiguous about keeping the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, with reports that his transition team explored various ways to leave the agreement, including pulling out entirely from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, said during his confirmation hearings it was important for the U.S. to keep its seat at the table of international climate negotiations.

An executive order from Trump is expected at some point to order a rewrite and potential rescinding of the Clean Power Plan. His EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, was among the 27 state attorneys general who sued the federal government over the carbon rules' legality.

Since taking over the nation's leading environmental office, Pruitt was been largely silent on climate change. Last week, he told CNBC of carbon dioxide, "I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see" — an opinion firmly rejected by the scientific community, the vast majority of whom affirm that the burning of fossil fuels, and the carbon emissions it produces, has been a primary driver of human-caused climate change.

More: Catholics question Pruitt's commitment to environmental protection (Jan. 19, 2017)

As for the Green Climate Fund, a focus of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops right now, whether Trump will continue future payments is up in the air. Foreign Policy reported on March 13 that State Department staffers were instructed to cut funding to U.N. programs in half, as much as $5 billion.

In addition, Trump was expected to reveal in Detroit Wednesday plans to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks enacted by Obama days before he left office. The new rules require carmakers to achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Along with individual signers, the Catholic climate petition has also garnered support from numerous congregations of women and men religious and affiliated programs. Those include the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, the Dominican Sisters Conference, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Ignatian Solidarity Network, and Franciscan Action Network.

Other institutional backers of the petition were Xavier University in Cincinnati; Siena College in Albany, New York; Rosemont College, outside Philadelphia; and the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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