Editorial: 2015 could be the year we save the earth

When it comes to our planet's health, "2015 could be a decisive year in history," Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told a gathering in London in November. We agree with the bishop: 2015 could go down in history as the year we saved the earth. We hope Catholics around the world can muster the spiritual and political clout to help make it happen.

The developments in early December out of Peru signal that a concrete, global solution for addressing climate change might well be within reach. The Lima Accord was an important breakthrough, representing the first time that each of the 195 member-nations in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to make commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Deadlines for submitting carbon-cutting plans come in March and June, and U.N. meetings in Geneva (February) and in Bonn, Germany (June), will further shape the Lima document before possible finalization in Paris in December. The year holds great possibilities, but it will be a long, hard fight against vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and global economic status quo.

Those looking for a strong voice for sustainability and environmental stewardship could find an able ally in Pope Francis. Faith-based communities can expect an accurate road map to the issues early in 2015 when Francis is expected to release his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. Francis will use the document to teach Catholics — as well as other religious and secular communities — about creation, humans' relations to it, and the state of the climate. If usual patterns with this pope hold true, it should spark intense global interest and prompt much conversation, within parishes, among bishops and in society at large, thanks to media coverage.

That Francis has selected the environment for his first solo encyclical (Lumen Fidei was largely written by Pope Benedict XVI) is in itself significant. Judging from his comments so far, Francis won't likely wax poetically about the fate of frozen tundra or endangered species, as much as he will place special focus on the human elements involved — both in the mistreatment of the planet and the resulting mistreatment of its people, particularly the world's poor.

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"Respect for nature also calls for recognizing that man himself is a fundamental part of it. Along with an environmental ecology, there is also need of that human ecology which consists in respect for the person," he told the European Parliament in November.

Additionally, the Vatican has floated the idea of hosting religious leaders at some point this year to further raise climate awareness ahead of the Paris summit. We hope Francis can duplicate in climate change negotiations the diplomatic acumen he demonstrated in cracking a 60-year stalemate in U.S.-Cuba relations.

As for the U.S., President Barack Obama clearly sees climate change as a legacy issue, and he will spend his remaining time in office addressing it. The mid-November deal he made with China, the world's leading greenhouse gas emitter (the U.S. is second), gave needed momentum to the Lima talks.

The groundwork for U.S. commitments, though, will become a battleground once the 114th Congress is sworn into office. Incoming majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has stated his first priority will be a bill approving construction of the highly contentious Keystone XL pipeline.

Politicians from coal country, McConnell included, are also dead set against the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan, which would greatly reduce emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants.

On behalf of the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, wrote to the EPA in July supporting national carbon reduction standards and encouraging Catholics to weigh in during a public commenting period that ended Dec. 1.

We applaud these efforts and encourage the U.S. bishops to do more. They have pulpits, blogs and diocesan newspapers as platforms and will have Francis' encyclical to form their message. By further leveraging alliances with groups like Franciscan Action Network and Catholic Climate Covenant, Catholics could become opinion leaders for carbon reduction in 2015.

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This story appeared in the Jan 2-15, 2015 print issue.

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