Negotiate Globally, Advocate Nationally: An American Catholic Response to the U.S.-China Climate Change Agreement

Catholic Social Ethics

On Wednesday, November 12, the United States and China agreed to national carbon emission reductions. On the one hand, both countries are already set to meet their respective reduction targets based on existing commitments. On the other hand, the deal is significant because it signals that the world’s two largest carbon polluters may now be ready to support—rather than obstruct—a meaningful international climate change treaty. Whichever way people choose to assess the U.S.-China agreement, however, one thing is clear: the recent U.S. midterm elections make Catholic climate advocacy around the Clean Power Plan even more important—especially ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2015.

Terms of the Agreement: Symbolic or Significant?

 According to the terms of the U.S.-China climate change agreement, the U.S. will reduce its cumulative greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Additionally, China will peak its carbon emissions and consume 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030.

In response to the announced agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry described the pact as “historic.” Although this is true in the sense that the agreement is the first time that China has pledged to halt its carbon emissions, some criticize the deal as more pageantry than substance. As Tim Mak claims, “The announcement is largely a restatement of existing American and Chinese carbon emission trajectories, topped with a new red ribbon.”

In the current atmosphere of international climate change negotiations, however, others believe that even such political theatre can be an important first step along a “potentially historic path.” This is due to the fact that climate change commitments from the U.S. and China (the world’s two largest greenhouse gas-emitting nations) are seen as crucial to the successful negotiation of an international climate change treaty at the December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21)—something explicitly supported by the Holy See under Pope Francis.

Clean Power Plan

 In order to both uphold its commitment to China and support an international climate treaty at COP21, the U.S. will need to rely heavily on the Clean Power Plan proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Given the outcome of the U.S. mid-term elections, however, the fate of the Plan is now increasingly uncertain.

On November 4, 2014, the Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress. The GOP has in recent years been increasingly hostile to climate change legislation, and the upcoming Republican-controlled 114th Congress will likely embody that hostility. For example, current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has promised to make “reining in” the EPA his top legislative priority as Senate Majority Leader. Additionally, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Congress’ most outspoken climate change denier, is set to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Given the ideological make-up of the 114th Congress, many expect an all-out attack on the Clean Power Plan in 2015. Although the Clean Power Plan is not subject to Congressional approval, there are still ways for Congress to significantly damage American efforts to both address climate change and demonstrate good-faith ahead of COP21. For example, Tim McDonnell points out that Congress could incite public backlash against the Plan via the Congressional bully pulpit and/or try to hamper the EPA’s ability to implement the Clean Power Plan by cutting the Agency’s funding. Beyond the Clean Power Plan, McDonnell also points out that Congress could also attempt to reduce American contributions to the UN-supported Green Climate Fund for adaptation.

 Catholic Advocacy for the Clean Power Plan

 In order for the Clean Power Plan—and, by extension, the U.S.-China agreement and COP21—to withstand the GOP’s vowed 2015 attack, people of faith and goodwill will need to advocate strongly in favor of this proposal. In order to help U.S. Catholics offer faith-based support for the Plan, the Catholic Climate Covenant has published resources through which Catholics can submit faith-based comments to the EPA about the Plan and urge their elected officials to support the proposed policy.

The advocacy resources offered by the Covenant are animated by the support for a national carbon pollution standard offered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). As I’ve written for Political Theology Today, Millennial Journaland America Magazine, the bishops’ advocacy is an important step that is rooted in the Church’s firm understanding of climate change as a moral issue. In particular, the bishops’ support for a national carbon pollution standard is inspired by the recognition that the consequences of climate change—including food and water stresses, population displacement, higher frequencies of severe-weather events and increased numbers of fatalities—compromise core principles of Catholic Social Teaching. This is especially true of the commitments to protect human life and dignity, exercise a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, care for God’s creation, and promote the common good.

Conclusion

 In the wake of both the recent mid-term elections and U.S.-China climate agreement, the proposed Clean Power Plan has taken on increased political significance in the national and international efforts to mitigate climate change. Guided by Church teaching, U.S. Catholics—indeed all people of faith and goodwill—thus have an important opportunity to exercise faithful citizenship and support the Clean Power Plan. The domestic and international policy negotiations of 2015 will help define our planet’s future climatic equilibrium, and U.S. Catholics now have an unprecedented opportunity to tip the scales in favor of climatic stability, justice and peace.

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