The Heat Is Online

Catholic Bishops Call on US to Act on Climate Change

Catholic Bishops Adopt a Call for Action on the Climate

The New York Times, June 16, 2001

ATLANTA, June 15 — While stopping short of endorsing any particular prescription, America's Roman Catholic bishops voted unanimously today to issue a statement calling for immediate action to mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Meeting in an Atlanta suburb, the bishops steered clear of the roiling debate between the Bush administration and many environmentalists over the 1997 global warming agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol. Mr. Bush opposes that agreement, which was negotiated by the Clinton administration to set mandates for the United States and other countries to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. Mr. Bush's reversal of the United States' stance has angered many allies in Europe, where he traveled this week.

Rather than entering that politically sensitive debate, the bishops set down principles for guiding the country's approach to what they acknowledge is a complicated issue. But the statement by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, titled "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good," also asserts that the United States, because of its wealth, its position in the world and its record as a heavy producer of heat-trapping, or greenhouse, gases, must play a special role in protecting the planet.

"Historically, the industrialized countries have emitted more greenhouse gases that warm the climate than have the developing countries," the document states. "Affluent nations such as our own have to acknowledge the impact of voracious consumerism instead of simply calling for population and emissions controls from people in poorer nations."

Although the document is unique in terms of its subject, it follows more than a decade of increasingly outspoken interest by the bishops on the environment. By 1993, the United States Catholic Conference had begun an environmental justice program that encouraged local action by Catholics to protect the environment, with a special eye toward helping the poor. The church has also encouraged priests to take up local concerns, like sprawl and industrial pollution of watersheds.

Bishops in the Northwest, for example, adopted a pastoral letter in February urging the protection of the Columbia River and its tributaries as God's creations.

Last fall, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston and all 20 bishops in northern New England, citing the need for "moral evaluation" of environmental issues, called for protecting fish stocks and condemned "personal habits of overconsumption and waste." They called on parishes to include references to the environment in their religious programs.

Connecticut bishops spoke out in April, calling for reduced automobile emissions and more attention to the problem of pediatric asthma.

Throughout the document put forth today, the bishops take a particular interest in the potential harm of global warming on the world's poor. It says that poorer nations have a "right to economic development" and that their wealthier counterparts ought to help them develop technologies that would produce lower emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The statement, which took three years to produce, was adopted on a voice vote by the 217 bishops present.

The document makes no independent judgment about global warming, but accepts that numerous scientific findings point to significant evidence that human behavior and activity have contributed to it.

The bishops also discuss the need to protect the environment as a means of exercising stewardship of God's creation.

And the statement calls on the United States to "undertake reasonable and effective initiatives for energy conservation and the development of alternate renewable and clean-energy resources."

Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the conference's committee on domestic policy, said the bishops did not believe they had the expertise to take a stand on the Kyoto accord or any other detailed plan to combat global warming. He described the Kyoto agreement, and a previous accord reached in Rio de Janeiro, as helpful, but said continuing research and discussion were needed.