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The Pope, the President and our pro-coal PM


'Coal Miner Abbott Meets Obama', by Chris Johnston, has Abbott in a miner's hat and covered in coal dust greeting a startled ObamaPope Francis is creating a seismic shift in how the Catholic Church talks about climate change. While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI made reference to climate change in passing, Francis is planning an entire encyclical on environmental questions, which is expected to be released later this year. It is not difficult to predict that climate change will be on top of his agenda.

This will be a timely intervention by the Pope as Australia is rapidly retreating from its small gains in carbon pollution reduction. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not only promised to cancel any pricing mechanism on carbon, he is dismantling anything that resembles government investment in renewable energy production.

In his recent speech to the Minerals Council of Australia he argued that it is 'particularly important that we do not demonise the coal industry', adding that the Government wants to keep mining strong because 'it is our destiny in this country to bring affordable energy to the world'.

Significantly the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has just taken steps to align itself with US federal government action on climate change. It has written a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) addressing the issue, and making the link between carbon emissions and climate change.

Noting the EPA's 'efforts to develop standards to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants and thereby mitigate climate change', it says:

The USCCB recognises the importance of finding means to reduce carbon pollution. These standards should protect the health and welfare of all people, especially children, the elderly ... poor and vulnerable communities, from harmful pollution emitted from power plants and from the impacts of climate change.

While acknowledging that they are not 'experts on carbon pollution or on the technical remedies to address climate change', they do speak as pastors, recalling Francis' call that 'Creation ... is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.'

It notes that coal-fired power plants have often been located near low-income neighborhoods and 'communities of color' and that 'air pollution from these plants contributes to respiratory problems, especially in the young and the elderly'. It highlights the 'damaging impacts from climate-related events in the United States and across the globe, particularly on poor and vulnerable communities'. Internationally it notes that:

the communities served by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are already experiencing the tragic consequences of climate change. Increasingly limited access to water, reduced crop yields, more widespread disease, increased frequency and intensity of droughts and storms, as well as conflict over declining resources — all these are making the lives of the world's poorest people even more precarious.

Far from seeing cheap coal as the solution to the world's energy problems, the bishops note that it is the poor of the world who are being most affected by climate change, not in some foreseeable future but in the here and now. Cheap coal comes at too high a price.

This letter is remarkable for two reasons. Like the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, the US Conference is not without its climate change sceptics. Yet here they have acted in unison in writing to the EPA supporting action on this issue.

Moreover, in doing so they are supporting the policy of President Barack Obama, who is seeking to use environmental regulation to impose stricter limits on carbon emissions. He was forced to take this direction in the face of opposition from Republicans in the legislative arena. So not only are the Catholic bishops supporting Obama on this issue, they are doing so in the face of Republican opposition.

The bishops have often been portrayed as staunch opponents of the Obama agenda and continue to oppose aspects of its healthcare program, but here they are clearly aligning themselves with this policy direction.

During Abbott's forthcoming visit to Obama he will find a president not only willing to take strong action in relation to climate change, but doing so with the public support of the US Catholic bishops. This is not a situation he will find comfortable given that in the Australian context he has always previously been able to count on the support of Cardinal Pell to muddy the waters on climate change.

The letter from the USCCB comes a week after the joint statement by Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (known as the 'green' Patriarch) after their historical meeting in Jerusalem, marking the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. In a brief statement of ten paragraphs an entire paragraph is devoted to the environmental question:

We acknowledge in repentance the wrongful mistreatment of our planet, which is tantamount to sin before the eyes of God. We reaffirm our responsibility and obligation to foster a sense of humility and moderation so that all may feel the need to respect creation and to safeguard it with care.

Together, we pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation; we appeal to all people of goodwill to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God's world and the benefit of his people.

In penning his encyclical Francis will be emboldened by his meeting with Bartholomew, with whom he shares a 'profound conviction that the future of the human family depends also on how we safeguard — both prudently and compassionately, with justice and fairness — the gift of creation that our Creator has entrusted to us'.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Pope Francis, Obama, Tony Abbott, climate change, coal



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'Not a situation he (PM) will find comfortable' : Can you imagine how the conversation will go with the President? The PM won't raise the issue of CC directly. When/if the President does, the PM will say that 'we are taking action - action that we are confident will be more effective than the previous government's approaches. I note your moves Mr.President, and hope we can compare notes in the future about how our respective initiatives are faring.' I doubt if, given the niceties of diplomatic talk, the President will push the issue further. Maybe, the President will raise global warming in the context of wanting to see it on the agenda for the Brisbane G20 meeting later in the year? The PM will say maybe it should be an item for tabling as to what each country is doing, but that it should not take up the time for dealing with the 'real agenda - i.e. global economic growth'. Then will the President push on this one, too? I doubt it - Australia is the host, etc. With a PM who has convinced himself that Murdoch's right: that the market is not only the most efficient but the most moral system, we know he's cementing in his dismissal of evrything he's learnt about Catholic Social Principles, and transferred his agenda to a winding back of 'green initiatives' which he's happy to see as 'anti-human'. How far back in history can the PM take this country? The Pope's forthcoming letter on the environment will have to be pretty direct on these issues before the PM - and his Cabinet colleagues who think likewise - won't be able to find a way past his blindspot.

Len Puglisi | 06 June 2014  

Thanks, Neil. Spot on! I must admit that I am surprised that the US bishops have sent this letter to the EPA in the US, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for the Australian bishops to do something similar.I hope I'm wrong. Thanks to Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis who have provided inspiring leadership on this issue.

Paul Collins | 06 June 2014  

The Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt says he welcomes the news that the United States will require its power sector to radically cut its emissions. The Minister argues that president Obama is taking a very similar approach to the Abbott Government. Mr Hunt spoke to Alexandra Kirk in our Parliament House studio a short time ago. GREG HUNT: But we actually welcome America's role and we welcome the direction which the president has set out. I think it's very important for the world that the United States and China, India and the EU achieve significant positions. For us and the United States, there's actually a very comparable goal: the US position of minus 17 per cent based on 2005 figures, when translated into Australian terms, is related to our minus 12 per cent on 2000…

Placid Pete | 06 June 2014  

When 90% of modern day Catholics pay little if any heed to what the Church teaches under the authority of the Papacy and the non-Catholic world cares even less, it s highly unlikely that an encyclical on environmental care will mean anything.

john frawley | 06 June 2014  

Your timely article is an echo of Pope Francis who recently said that “the knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit is a special gift which allows us to grasp, through creation, God’s profound relationship with every creature.” He went on urging everyone to “safeguard creation: If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us!” If the Church is serious about climate change, not only the Pope but bishop conferences of all countries must pioneer in this sacred endeavour. And to safeguard creation must be the sine qua non criteria in choosing a bishop. Toan Nguyen

Toan Nguyen | 06 June 2014  

And will the Church be looking at it's own influence on environmental problems? Easily available contraception to those who want it might be a help in checking population growth and its associated environmental problems?

Russell | 06 June 2014  

I wonder if the US Conference of Catholicx Bishops or president Obama have recommended :-- 1 The closure of US Nuclear power plants? OR 2 The replacement of coal-fired with nuclear powered plants? IF NOT, WHY NOT? Surely the Bishops and the President after many years of experience are aware that nuclear is CHEAPER, CLEANER and SAFER than coal.

Bill Barry | 06 June 2014  

"(T)he communities served by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are already experiencing the tragic consequences of climate change." say the U.S. Bishops. Therefore: Catholic Relief Services workers are detecting the effects of a 0.85 °C atmospheric global warming of the whole period of the last 130 years back to 1885 (= 65 thousandths of a degree per decade, average) (IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, 2013), a warming that actually stopped about 14 to 18 years ago (R. Pachauri head of IPCC/RSS)?

HH | 06 June 2014  

Just as the rest of the world is coming to its senses after 20 years of the pagan gospel of climate change, I pray that good Pope Francis is not going to be duped into straying into this blind alley.

kentgeordie | 06 June 2014  

HH - climate change doesn't mean just that we will suffer a steadily increasing temperature (that's what air-conditioners are for) but that the greenhouse effect is creating unusual patterns and extremes - stronger cyclones, more flooding, longer droughts, a colder Antarctica, an acidifying ocean etc. BB I think that the aversion to nuclear is both from the material finding its way into weapons, and because of not wanting to leave such a toxic legacy to future generations. (Admittedly leaving a stuffed up climate is not much of a legacy either)

Russell | 08 June 2014  

You're right, Russell - which is why I referred to the "effects" of that paltry warming, not the paltry warming itself. But contrary to these aid workers, the IPCC marshaling all the scientific expertise available, has detected no increasing trends in droughts and storms on a global scale over recent years. It states re. cyclones: “Current datasets indicate NO significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century … confidence in large scale changes in the intensity of extreme extratropical cyclones since 1900 is LOW”. Re. floods: “In summary, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus LOW confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale” And re. droughts “…there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than LOW confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century.” (My emphasis).(IPCC 2013 AR5 WG1 Chapter 2) So the statement of the U.S. bishops, though heartfelt and high sounding, lacks any factual basis.

HH | 10 June 2014  

HH the IPCC has produced a huge amount of information, from which conclusions such as "It is now very likely that human influence has contributed to observed global scale changes in the frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes since the mid-20th century, and likely that human influence has more than doubled the probability of occurrence of heat waves in some locations" and so on and so on. You know that the bishops are taking their position based on the scientific consensus. Your ideology places you in the anti-science camp, somewhere the Church has been happy to have been for much of its history. If the Church is to make progress, some people will just have to be allowed to catch up in their thinking in their own good time.

Russell | 10 June 2014  

Russell, for the purposes of my re-education, who do I go with? The U.S. bishops who proclaim that increased and more intense droughts have been due to global warming, or the IPCC consensus of "low confidence" in such a claim ? With your claim that climate change has been creating stronger cyclones, or the IPCC 2013 consensus of "low confidence" in that ?

HH | 11 June 2014