By Sheila Read
“The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations.” ~ Pope Benedict XVI
My grandfather was an engineer who eventually founded a successful construction company. But despite his wealth, he could not tolerate waste of money or resources. He came of age during the Great Depression, and the hardship marked him for life. Waste of electricity particularly bothered him, and he often chided his grandchildren for leaving lights on when leaving a room or keeping the refrigerator door open while deciding what to eat.
It wasn’t until much later, when I began to learn about global warming, that I realized Grandpa had a point. He was concerned about wasting money with thoughtless use of electricity. But we were also wasting resources, paying a power plant to burn coal or oil or natural gas that were released as greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. And the sad part was that the price paid in money and additional greenhouse gases wasn’t even contributing to improving our lives.
It has been 25 years since global warming first became a major public issue. In the last five years, an overwhelming scientific consensus has emerged that climate change is occurring and that we have a limited window of time to address it before the change becomes irreversible.
Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly emphasized the need to address consumption-oriented lifestyles that are contributing to degradation of God’s creation, including the phenomenon of climate change. “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity… and the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees?’” Pope Benedict asked in his 2010 World Day of Peace message.
In the same message, the Pope called for lifestyle changes to ensure the sustainability of energy use for future generations. “This means that technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency,” the Pope said. “At the same time there is a need to encourage research into, and utilization of, forms of energy with lower impact on the environment.”
On Nov. 27, 2011, the day before the opening of international climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Benedict called for “a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrying and complex phenomenon, taking into account the needs of the poorest populations and of the generations to come.”
Pope Benedict has also been leading by example. Under his leadership, the Vatican in 2007 because the first carbon-neutral state in Europe. It aims to get 20 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020. The Vatican also installed 2,400 solar panels on the roof of its audience hall, saving an estimated 225 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also is promoting prudent action on global warming, founded on core values of Catholic Social Teaching that include stewardship of the Earth, concern for the common good, and special concern for the poor.
“In the case of global climate change, we know enough to understand that scientific arguments for action on the reduction of greenhouse gases cannot be easily dismissed,” the USCCB said. We have a duty to act, the bishops say. “Heat waves, droughts, and storms and consequent economic costs will fall most heavily upon the poor. Since the “least of these” are most at risk from the climate change, Christians have a particular duty to address the moral and human implications of climate change,” according to the USCCB.
The conference of bishops, along with the Franciscan Action Network, Catholic Charities and other organizations, sponsors the Catholic Climate Covenant, which asks Catholics to take the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor. The pledge asks us to pray, learn, assess, act and advocate on behalf of Catholic principles in personal and social decisions on energy use and climate change.
Average global temperatures have increased by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the mid-1950s, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study confirmed last fall. The decade of 2000-2009 was the warmest decade since recordkeeping began in 1880, a World Resources Institute review of scientific documentation showed. Mountain glaciers are melting and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking.
Wildfires, extreme droughts, and extreme rainfalls resulting in flooding are becoming more common throughout the world. In the U.S. alone, 2011 had a record 14 weather-related disasters (floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms) that each cost $1 billion or more in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the absence of effective action by countries worldwide to reduce carbon emissions from burning of fossil fuels, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is climbing rapidly. Recent statistics showed that worldwide emission of greenhouse gases increased by 6 percent in 2010, the largest single-year increase ever recorded.
The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (392 parts per million) now is higher than that in the worst-case scenario predicted five years ago. In that worst-case projection, scientists predicted a rise in average global temperature of between 4.3 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with a 7.2 degree Fahrenheit increase the most likely, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
How can we reduce our carbon footprint? Lent 4.5 offers tips on reducing energy use at home, including the following:
- Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. They use 25 percent of the energy of traditional incandescents.
- Adjust the thermostat. Heating and cooling accounts for 50-70 percent of home energy costs. For each degree below 68 in winter and above 78 in summer, you save 3-5 percent in energy.
- Reduce the need for water heating through thoughtful use of appliances. Heating water accounts for 13-25 percent of home energy use. Consider shorter washes with the dishwasher, shower, and laundry machines. Ninety percent of laundry loads can be done using cold water.
- Line dry clothes when possible. Dryers are the third largest consumer of energy in homes.
- For more information on what you can do to save energy, click here.
- To calculate your carbon footprint, click here.