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The Religion of Climate Change

Nicholas G Hahn III, The Wall Street Journal


The Catholic Church would usually condemn blatant politicization of theological documents like Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ , but not this time.

When President Obama on Monday announced new “Clean Power Plan” regulations to help mitigate climate change, more than a few religious leaders were quick to offer their blessing. Some 170 evangelicals—pastors, religion professors, nonprofit directors and others—sent an open letter to the president “to offer our support and encouragement for your efforts to overcome the climate challenge.”

The Evangelical Environmental Network, as the group calls itself, would “prefer that Congress act to reduce carbon pollution through a market-based approach, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax swap that cuts other taxes,” but is nonetheless “grateful” for the president’s executive action.

Mr. Obama also seemed to indicate that his proposed rules have the imprimatur of another faith leader. “As Pope Francis made clear in his encyclical this summer,” the president said in his speech, “taking a stand against climate change is a moral obligation.”

The Catholic Church would usually condemn blatant politicization of theological documents like Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ , but not this time. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote on Monday to “welcome this important move by the administration to adopt long-awaited standards to mitigate climate change and safeguard public health.”

The bishops went further, encouraging lawmakers to “oppose legislation and appropriations riders designed to reverse efforts to implement a national standard to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants.”

This teaming up of church and state on environmental issues has become common. On July 25 the recently appointed Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, toured a Catholic school with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. The archbishop invited the EPA to monitor archdiocesan power and water usage. “The Archdiocese of Chicago has partnered with the EPA’s Energy Star program, as it works to make its operations more sustainable and efficient,” the pair wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Yet the archdiocese might have been trying to save its churches and their religious freedoms, not water. In 2011 Mayor Rahm Emanuel began to phase out an exemption that gave churches free water—a $20.3 million annual bill the city could no longer afford. But the late Cardinal Francis George, previously the archbishop of Chicago, suggested the mayor’s move wasn’t entirely about balancing the budget. “If you don’t want a city that only has government institutions,” he said during negotiations over the exemption in April 2013, “then you have to see to the solvency of religious institutions and other nonprofits.”

Archbishop Cupich and other spiritual shepherds should be wary of how this administration is conscripting religious institutions. Here’s a small but illustrative example: The EPA recently awarded an $84,000 grant to the University of Michigan to study how 17 faith institutions have organized “sustainability programs,” with the goal of developing workshops for pastors and faith leaders. “The results will provide insights into the role of religion and faith communities in motivating environmental behavior,” the grant said. The real purpose is to figure out how to better use religious leaders as political pawns.

Pope Francis should avoid making any imprudent statements during his visit to the U.S. in September, lest he get further entangled in the president’s agenda. The Clean Power Plan doesn’t put humans at the center of the environment, as Laudato Si’ recommends. Mr. Obama’s regulations aim to reduce power-plant carbon emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. Thus he implicitly renews his January 2008 pledge to “bankrupt” the coal industry. The Heritage Foundation predicts that by 2030 the plan would result in an “average annual employment shortfall of nearly 300,000 jobs.”

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