EPA chief headed to Vatican to talk climate change

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to make a brief Vatican visit at the end of the week on the topic of addressing climate change.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will meet there Friday with senior officials, among them Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. She is also slated to meet with Catholic journalists Friday morning and business leaders in Rome that afternoon.

The agency initiated the meeting through U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett, viewing it as a unique opportunity to directly engage the Vatican.

Speaking to NCR ahead of her trip, McCarthy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, described the Vatican stop as “the most important” on a five-day trip that will also have her visiting Geneva (Thursday), Rome (Friday) and Florence (Monday). She said the meetings will focus on discussing President Barack Obama’s climate action plan and EPA’s role in addressing the effects of climate change both domestically and internationally.

“Clearly, climate change is an issue that is impactful in terms of how we’re not just going to protect the most vulnerable but also take responsibility for protecting God’s natural resources,” McCarthy said.

“I think that the president and myself agree that climate change is indeed a moral issue,” she said. “It is about protecting those most vulnerable, and EPA’s job, as focusing on public health and environmental protection, always tasked ourselves to look at those most vulnerable and to ensure that when we’re taking action we’re addressing their needs most effectively.”

Discussions also expect to touch on Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment. In August, Turkson delivered a first draft of the teaching document to Francis, who has indicated the encyclical will publish in June or July -- in time for it to “make a contribution” to international climate negotiations in Paris in December.

McCarthy told NCR she intends to communicate to Vatican officials the president’s commitment to addressing climate change, and hopes “to provide whatever support they think is advisable and appropriate.”

She added the most important thing she can do in the meetings is “to encourage that this dialogue continue” and to talk about the shared concerns the U.S. and the Vatican have “to really highlight this issue and begin to turn that into concrete actions that protect those that are most vulnerable and our key natural resources.”

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The international outreach comes after recent, similar efforts at home. EPA has worked to connect with faith communities of all denominations, recognizing most have long teaching traditions on creation care, and their ability to reach people in a way that stating the science of climate change -- which McCarthy described as clear yet too often debated -- cannot.  

“And we’re hoping that this effort will not only generate sort of a broader understanding of the challenge of climate change, but a really good discussion of how the work of the church, the work of all faiths, can actually be … a way that recognizes and addresses climate change,” she said.

In the summer, McCarthy called Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chair of the Domestic Justice and Human Development committee of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, to thank him for his May letter supporting EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan.

The plan seeks to reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. A final version of the rule, as well as separate rules for new and modified/reconstructed plants, are expected in mid-summer. Power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., and account for a third of the nation's greenhouse emissions.

During the Clean Power Plan’s commenting period, which closed Dec. 1, EPA received more than 2 million comments. The U.S. bishops’ conference and its affiliate groups encouraged Catholics to participate, with the Catholic Climate Covenant holding eight educational events at Catholic colleges and institutions in five states.

Since the summer, EPA has held meetings with USCCB officials, including an October gathering where McCarthy, Wenski and several Catholic groups -- among them Catholic Climate Covenant and Catholic Relief Services -- met at EPA headquarters to discuss the Clean Power Plan.

In two letters to the EPA, the bishops have stressed the importance of curbing carbon pollution in relation to its effect on the poor, who often face the brunt of impacts. They stated CRS has already seen “the tragic consequences of climate change” in communities they serve worldwide -- from increasingly limited water access and reduced crop yields, to more widespread disease and more frequent and intense storms and droughts -- and “all these are making the lives of the world’s poorest people even more precarious.”

The connection between addressing poverty and carbon pollution was made during Obama’s trip to India, which concludes Tuesday. A joint statement from the two nations’ leaders stated they “recognize that global climate change is a profound threat to humanity and to the imperatives of sustainable development, growth and the eradication of poverty.”

“I think they’re very much linked,” McCarthy said.

Domestically, the intersection is evident in Native American tribes in the West struggling with drought, the administrator said. Internationally, Vietnamese governmental officials have expressed concern how even a small sea level rise in the Mekong Delta region could displace millions of people.

“Let’s keep in mind that environment isn’t just a natural resource issue or a safety problem. It is a fundamental threat to the economies across the world,” McCarthy said.

She continued: “And that’s why it’s important to have Pope Francis continue to speak as clearly as he can because there are millions if not billions of people at risk here who the Catholic church and other faiths have been focused on for many, many years. And it’s those individuals that we need to speak for, and to help.”

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

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