The Faith Community & Climate Change

A Q&A with Dan Misleh
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Greenland glaciers photo by Christine Zenino / Wikimedia
Melting glaciers off Ammassalik, Greenland / Christine Zenino - Wikimedia

Earlier this week, Commonweal contributing editor John Gehring spoke with Dan Misleh, the executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, about climate change, Donald Trump, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si,’ and why it’s important for people of faith to show up at The People’s Climate March this Saturday. The Covenant was founded in 2006 with support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and is supported by sixteen national partners, including Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association, and Catholic Relief Services. The interview was conducted by e-mail.


John Gehring: There are plenty of secular organizations working on climate justice and environmental stewardship. What distinctive approach does a Catholic group like yours bring to advocacy and activism?

Dan Misleh: The Catholic approach holds that we are concerned about both God’s good gift of creation and the impacts of environmental degradation on people, especially those most vulnerable: the poor at home and abroad. As Pope Francis said in Laudato si,’ “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

How we take care of creation will dictate how we care for one another and vice-versa. For Catholics, this is not just about saving the polar bear but also saving ourselves from our own destructive habits.

JG: The Trump administration seems determined to roll back any forward motion on addressing climate change with its appointments and policies. Given the obvious challenges, what are you hopeful about?

DM: There are significant and sustained waves of people and activity already pushing to reduce our environmental impact and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. The challenges presented by the current administration are obstacles, but they will not be able to stop this important progress. I am buoyed by the witness of women religious who have shown how to be good stewards of God’s gifts over the decades just as I am uplifted by the ever-increasing number young people on college campuses majoring in sustainability and pushing university leadership to reduce their carbon emissions. I am inspired by Catholic Climate Covenant’s growing list of supporters willing to engage with their fellow Catholics and advocate on behalf of the poor and vulnerable who are often forgotten in policy debates.

The challenges presented by the current administration won’t stop progress

JG: In Laudato si,’ Pope Francis stresses that climate change is a moral issue and urgent action is required. What impact do you think the Pope has had on political and policy conversations when it comes to the environment?

DM: Despite the recent political setbacks, I remain encouraged that policy conversations have become more serious and more sustained. I think of the Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus, which has thirty-eight members equally divided between the parties working to find public-policy options to reduce carbon emissions, create clean energy economy jobs, and build for a safer energy future. I hope the U.S. Senate follows suit, soon. And at the local and state levels, even more is being done. Cities across America are working to find ways to lower the carbon footprints of their buildings and reducing emissions from the transportation sector. The Vatican has held several conferences encouraging impact investing in energy projects around the world, as well as exploring the divest-invest equation and what it means for the Catholic Church globally.

JM: Are Catholic bishops and clergy rallying behind the Pope’s message or has it been a cautious reception?

DM: I think many are embracing the challenges of Laudato si.’ I’m encouraged by the leadership of Catholic leaders like Archbishop Dennis Schnurr in Cincinnati, who is supporting our Catholic Covenant Energies program, in which we bring our education and energy efficiency expertise along with financing to help parishes and schools reduce their energy use, save money and take advantage of the opportunity to educate parishioners, students, and parents about the importance of caring for creation and caring for the poor. I also think of Cardinals Cupich, O’Malley, and Dolan, who have benchmarked all archdiocesan buildings, begun solar installations, and systematically enrolled parishes in energy-efficiency programs. 

In other dioceses, I would agree that the reception has perhaps been more cautious (although in the same breath, I won’t pretend to know all that is going to implement care for creation programs across the country!). As we know, the climate issue is still seen as a political issue rather than a scientific and moral issue. To many, it is still viewed as controversial and some remain uncomfortable wading into these tricky waters.

JG: What is the best way you’ve found to address Catholics and other people of faith who are skeptical about the need to make environmental justice a priority? 

DM: I try to find common ground. I ask: “Do you have children or grandchildren?” “Are you concerned about air and water pollution?” “Are you worried about the economy and jobs?” “Have you been impacted by a weather-related disaster?” Often, we find that we share many of these concerns and while we might disagree on solutions, we are can at least agree that something must be done for future generations and that healthier air and water is a value.

JG: Are care for the environment and climate change “pro-life” issues? 

DM: Certainly. The earth supports all life, including human life. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis all have said that caring for creation is a pro-life concern and we must take greater care of the earth so all might thrive. Consider the harm a warming planet might do especially to future generations. A warmer world means more severe droughts and more intense storms, rising sea levels, and the displacement of millions of people. The lives of these future generations are no less important than the lives of current generations who are also impacted by climate-related events or other environmental harms.

JG: Any examples you want to share about how Catholic Climate Covenant is working with dioceses, churches or Catholic schools to help them become “greener?”

DM: Our Catholic Covenant Energies program holds great promise. We bring our expertise in energy efficiency work to parishes and schools. They can dramatically lower their energy use and save thousands on their utility bills. At the same time, we encourage parish leaders and principals—with the help of the diocesan peace and justice staff—to take advantage of the benefits of these projects to share why Catholics are concerned about energy and climate: how this is part of what it means to be a Catholic in a climate-threatened world. We bring to the projects energy experts, evaluate energy companies bidding on the work, as well as financing, if required. Parishes and schools are astounded that the return on investment can be as much as 30 percent. That money can then be used to finance additional energy savings projects and/or be plowed back into core mission activities.

JG: The People’s Climate March is on Saturday, April 29. Why is the Catholic Climate Covenant participating?

DM: We feel it’s important to bring the voices of the faith community to the march. Climate change has significant moral consequences for the planet and its people. Without the presence of the faith community, I’m not sure that this perspective would be a part of the march.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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