Catholic coalition files amicus brief backing Clean Power Plan

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen behind the smokestacks of the only coal-burning power plant in Washington in this March 10, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen behind the smokestacks of the only coal-burning power plant in Washington in this March 10, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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A contingent of 30 Catholic organizations and institutes, including three dioceses, filed a joint amicus brief Friday with other faith groups in support of the court-contested Clean Power Plan -- the bedrock of the Obama administration's carbon-emissions-reducing plans and the basis of the U.S. commitment to an international pact to address climate change.

"The Rule is the latest, and perhaps most important, of several steps that EPA has taken to reduce carbon emissions," the coalition of 41 faith-based organizations wrote.

The brief was among the numerous filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, where attorneys general representing 27 states have challenged the legality of the national carbon rules developed by the U.S. Environmental Agency. The appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments June 2.

In February the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on implementation of the Clean Power Plan in granting an unprecedented stay of the regulations until the D.C. appeals court issues its ruling, and, if as expected, until the high court itself weighs in. The appeals court had unanimously denied a stay request.

The Clean Power Plan seeks to reduce U.S. carbon emissions from the power sector (and primarily coal-fired plants) by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The rules assigned states specific emissions targets, allowing for a range of solutions to meet them.

More: EPA unveils Clean Power Plan, as faith groups quick to embrace (Aug. 4, 2015)

It also represents the foundation for the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement, with America pledging to cut emissions by 26-28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025. The Paris Agreement, adopted in December, saw 195 nations agree to the goal of limiting global warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, and to commit toward holding warming to 1.5 degrees C.

The Clean Power Plan, the faith coalition said in its brief, "is necessary, but not sufficient" to carry out the moral responsibility to protect the Earth, and in particular, to avert "a climate crisis of our own making," or at minimum limit the damage, for the sake of all the planet's creatures.

"Climate change threatens human health and welfare, particularly for those living in poverty and the least powerful," they said. "The consequences of climate change are distributed neither evenly nor proportionally to the fruits of the economic activity that produces carbon emissions."

In the U.S., they pointed to the disproportionate effects of massive storms, such as Hurricane Katrina, and urban "heat islands" on low-income communities, which are more likely located in flood-prone areas or who are more likely to lack air conditioning. In addition, they noted the plight of Alaskan native communities "unable to relocate to escape climate induced rising sea levels and coastal erosion."

The brief continued: "Amici fully support EPA's diligent effort and agree that the Rule is an essential part of fulfilling our collective obligation to curtail climate change."

Added Des Moines, Iowa, Bishop Richard Pates, whose diocese signed onto the brief, "It's important for all of us because we belong to one human family, that we have a moral responsibility not only for our immediate streets and neighborhoods and state, that we have a responsibility for the entire world."

Among other parties to the brief were the Catholic Climate Covenant; Catholic Rural Life; the Catholic Committee of Appalachia; the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach; three women religious orders and seven regional congregations and committees; seven Catholic universities -- including Cabrini College, Fordham University, Loyola University Maryland, and the University of San Diego -- in addition to four Catholic campus-based centers for sustainability, human rights and justice.

"The Clean Power Plan helps all of us answer Pope Francis's call in his encyclical, Laudato Si'," Dan Misleh, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, said in a statement.

Sr. Patricia McDermott, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, added that they are hopeful the plan addressed public health concerns "and the disproportionate impact of climate change and power plant emissions on low-income persons of color."

Other faith groups joining included the National Council of Churches USA, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Evangelical Environmental Network, Church World Service, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

In addition to the Des Moines diocese, the Stockton, Calif., and Davenport, Iowa, dioceses and the Buffalo, N.Y., diocesan creation care committee enlisted in the brief. Pates told NCR the Clean Power Plan represented "a vital step" to addressing climate change, as he described it "among the most important issues and questions from a moral perspective for humankind today."

"This particular act by EPA is one that takes a step to enable us nationally to begin to address this question," Pates said.

Since the plan's introduction in June 2014, U.S. bishops and numerous Catholic organizations have been quick to back a national standard for reducing carbon pollution from power plants. The Catholic Climate Covenant encouraged people to submit comments during the rule's commenting period, and held a series of educational events around the Clean Power Plan.

"The pope emphasizes we need to protect our common home and also protect the dignity and lives of the poor. And so the national standard is a vital step," Pates said.

The bishop noted that during his visit to the U.S. in September, Francis told President Barack Obama it was "encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution," and voiced to the U.S. Congress his conviction that the U.S. has "an important role to play" in averting the worst of human-caused environmental degradation.

Pates took Francis' words as recognition that the steps necessary for addressing global climate change "cannot be piecemeal any longer. The action can't be city by city, county by county, state by state."

"He recognizes the leadership of the United States in terms of its relationship with the rest of the world. … [The Clean Power Plan] is obviously an internal issue but it also has ramifications far beyond this, and the leadership of the United States is extraordinarily important," Pates told NCR.

Asked what he might say to one of the attorneys general suing EPA over its carbon rules, the Iowa bishop said he would begin by pointing to the available, economically beneficial alternative energy sources, noting his state derives 30 percent of its power from the wind.

"I think just to say that climate change is a fact, that we need to move forward with it, that there's alternatives to the fossil fuel energy and the carbon that it produces, so let's move, you know," he said.

In the brief, the faith contingent argued that while those opposing the Clean Power Plan "paint the Rule as revolutionary," it doesn't represent a "radical leap" and perhaps warrants even more aggressive action given the urgency of the problem.

"The Rule represents a compromise position," they said. "Given the profound urgency of the climate crisis, EPA could well have drawn the line differently, demanding greater and earlier reductions, as many suggested. Petitioners have the louder voice here, because they chose to sue. But the Court should not ignore the millions of Americans who individually, or through advocacy groups like Amici here, asserted the moral imperative to address the impending catastrophes of climate change through strong and immediate action."

The faith groups were just one of a multitude of associations filing amicus briefs Friday backing the Clean Power Plan. One came from a coalition of leading tech companies including Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, and another from more than 200 current and former members of Congress, primarily Democrats.

The briefs came a day after the U.S. and China issued their own joint statement, announcing they intend to sign the Paris Agreement on April 22, the first day the international accord officially opens for signatures. That day, which is Earth Day, the U.N. will hold a signing ceremony in New York. In February, Fiji became the first nation to formally ratify the agreement.

While nearly 200 nations adopted the Paris Agreement in December at the conclusion of COP21, the United Nations climate change conference, the deal doesn't go into legal force until it gathers the signatures of at least 55 nations representing at least 55 percent of global emissions. Together, China and the U.S., the world's No. 1 and No. 2 polluters, account for more than 40 percent of global greenhouse emissions.

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

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