Catholic leaders to US climate envoy: More American leadership needed to reach Paris deal

This article appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

The time for strong, courageous leadership from the United States is now if the world hopes to pave a way to a global climate agreement in Paris, said a coalition of U.S. bishops and presidents of domestic and international Catholic aid agencies in a letter to the nation’s chief climate negotiator.

The letter, dated Oct. 28 and addressed to Todd Stern, special envoy for climate change of the U.S. State Department, expressed gratitude for steps taken by the Obama administration so far, including setting national carbon emissions standards and pledging financing for the Green Climate Fund, but stressed “even more leadership is needed.”

“We urge you to exhibit strong U.S. leadership in securing a global commitment to curb global greenhouse gas emissions in the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Climate change is a result of global emissions and it is only through a global accord that we can hope to turn the tide against the worst projected impacts of climate change,” the four Catholic leaders wrote.

The letter signers included Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chair of Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Bishop Oscar Cantu, chair of the bishops’ Committee on International Peace and Justice; Dominican Sr. Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA; and Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services.

The four grounded their request in Pope Francis’ words, both from his environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” as well as various pleas he made during his six-day U.S. visit in September. They also quoted directly from a separate appeal for “a major break-through in Paris” made at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops on the family by cardinals, patriarchs and bishops worldwide that head continental bishops’ federations on six continents.

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Wenski represented U.S. bishops during the Oct. 26 signing of that appeal. In the past year, he and Cantu have ramped public support of legislative steps to address climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, but had not before written to U.S. climate negotiators before past United Nations climate summits.


More: "At Boston College, Turkson maps ‘Laudato Si’’ path to Paris climate agreement" (Oct. 1, 2015)


The U.N. climate summit in Paris, also known as COP 21, will run Nov. 30-Dec. 11. During those negotiations, world leaders are expected to sign a climate accord in which all nations agree to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in a reflection of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate change.

Stern has represented the U.S. in such venues since 2009. Last week, he traveled to Brazil and Cuba to discuss the upcoming negotiations. In early October, he said before a Senate committee hearing the U.S. in Paris will seek a non-legally binding agreement – a goal expressed by the bishops’ federations – but instead one crafted under existing treaties and not requiring Senate approval.

In their letter, the U.S. Catholic leaders said their appeal was part of ramped up efforts among Catholic organizations nationwide “to educate and mobilize Catholics to take action” on the climate issue. They stressed the need for U.N. negotiations to protect vulnerable communities, particularly those threatened by rising sea levels, drought and extreme weather, who are living abroad, but also those within the U.S. borders.  

 “We must also act within our own country to curtail carbon emissions that contribute to the problem and assist vulnerable populations. Leading by example will give our nation the moral authority it needs to help hold the rest of the world to their commitments as well,” they said.

The U.S. Catholic leaders closed the letter by quoting Francis in Laudato Si’, where he stated “to take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and result which dominates present-day economics and politics. But if they are courageous, they will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility." 

“It is our moral obligation to be courageous and to act now. This is why we support U.S. leadership in Paris to secure ‘a major break-through’ and global commitments to reduce carbon emissions,” they wrote.

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

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