Maryland parish among Catholic supporters of new state emissions reduction act

This story appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

by Marie Venner

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Living out their faith has helped Catholics in Maryland make history in their state’s commitment to environmental protection, placing it among the leaders in the nation.

On Monday Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act, which commits the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by 40 percent below 2006 levels by 2030. The bill, which takes effect. Oct. 1, builds off the 2009 Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Act, which set a goal of reducing emissions by 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020.

The new emissions reduction act places Maryland among national leaders in climate policies. Only California and New York have stronger emission reduction measures, but the level of bipartisan commitment shown in Maryland is unique.

The Maryland House of Delegates approved the legislation March 17 by a 100-37 vote; a month earlier, the state Senate passed its version of the legislation by a 38-8 vote. The state's Climate Change Commission, which includes members from the Legislature, businesses, nonprofit groups and agency secretaries appointed by the governor, unanimously recommended the change last year.

Along the Emissions Reduction Act’s path to passage, several Catholics and Catholic organizations weighed in on the bill.

Fr. Jacek Orzechowski of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, a parish with upwards of 4,000 people worshiping there every weekend, testified March 3 in Annapolis in support of the new emissions reduction law at the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee.  

“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide can be drastically reduced by substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy,” Orzechowski said at the hearing. “Pope Francis also calls upon ordinary citizens to get involve in the political process, to promote the common good and to mitigate damage done to our environment."

He continued: "My fellow parishioners have taken up that challenge. They have formed dozens of small groups, reflecting on the Pope’s message and planning future local actions. Last Sunday, nearly 600 Latino members of St. Camillus spent most of the day reflecting on the message of Pope Francis and learning about the Clean Energy Jobs Act. They have expressed their enthusiastic support for this legislation as you can see from this photo. And yet, every time we turn on the lights in our church, we are reminded of the fact that over half of the electricity we use comes from the burning dirty fossil fuels."

Just over a third of Maryland's electricity comes from coal (in December 2015, 502 gigawatt-hours of coal-fired electricity and 304 gigawatt-hours from natural gas), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than half the state’s energy is generated from nuclear power.

Orzechowski, who was recognized by Bethesda magazine as one of its five 2015 Green Award winners, added in his testimony the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2016 had the support of Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of the Baltimore archdiocese, as well as the support of bishops and senior leaders from many faith backgrounds. In fall 2015 more than 1,000 Marylanders from 85 congregations signed postcards in support of the Clean Energy Jobs Act.  

The Maryland Catholic Conference also issued testimonies in recent months regarding both energy bills. While saying it did not specifically support or oppose the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act, the conference said it generally “supports balanced measures to protect the environment without imposing undue burdens on the poor and nonprofits.” It also commended the bill for attempting to ensure emissions reduction efforts don’t disproportionately impact low-income, minority and rural communities.

Offering aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” relevant to the legislation, the conference said the pope recognizes global warming and rising seas are tied to greenhouse gases largely related to human activity, and that it affects a variety of areas: drinking water, agricultural production, ocean acidity, biodiversity.

“Therefore, greenhouse gases must be limited,” said the conference, which went on to note that two pillars of Catholic social teaching – creation care and the option for the poor and vulnerable – are linked in that those communities are often most affected by environmental degradation.

“With all of this in mind, the Conference encourages all plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to be framed in a comprehensive and integrative approach that considers how natural systems and social systems converge, and is not limited to only policies or technological changes,” it said.

Orzechowski confirmed that “Many members of our faith communities are aware of the hidden cost of dirty energy: debilitating asthma attacks in our children and elderly parents; the increasingly disturbing pattern of the extreme weather events threatening our homes.”

He said that many of the families at St. Camillus have relatives still living in Central America, sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh. 

“They know that there is a connection between the dirty energy we use, climate change, and the severe droughts and crop failures plaguing their countries of origins,” the priest said. “We need a bold vision and sound public policy that will help our state invest in renewable energy and clean energy jobs. It is good for our economy; it is good our communities; and, it’s good for our nation. It is also the smart, prudent and moral thing to do."

[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 on the Steering Committee of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.]

Editor's note: This story is part of a new joint project of two NCR blogs, "Eco Catholic" and "The Field Hospital," looking at parish- and grassroots-level efforts by Catholics to live out Pope Francis' encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home." Follow both The Field Hospital and Eco Catholic for future reports.

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