“Changing to Care for Our Common Home” – Saskatoon event held to reflect upon papal encyclical Laudato Si’

Oct. 23-24, 2015 – Conference jointly sponsored by Diocese of Saskatoon, Churches for Environmental Action, St. Thomas More College, Development and Peace, Knights of Columbus, and Queen’s House

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski

An ecumenical workshop in Saskatoon in October 2015 opened with a public lecture providing an overview of Pope Francis’ encyclical on care of the earth and a look at Saskatchewan’s role in global climate change.

Entitled “Changing to Care for Our Common Home,” the Oct. 23-24, 2015 workshop offered “a look at the practical, scientific, and theological callings of Laudato Si’ for all people,” said organizer Myron Rogal of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon’s justice and peace office. The event was also supported by Churches for Environmental Action, St. Thomas More College, Development and Peace, Queen’s House Retreat and Renewal Centre and Knights of Columbus Council 10580.

Saskatoon Bishop Donald Bolen began the public event at St. Thomas More College by providing an overview of Laudato Si’ –  the papal document released earlier this year that calls for conversion and practical action to care for the earth as “our common home.”

Pope Francis highlights the beauty of the natural world, and how important it is to be attentive to God’s creation, said Bolen. “The earth is home for us – and the word home is dense with meaning. We are alienated when we lose that sense of having a home.”

The earth is also wounded, said Bolen. “In his Encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis noted that our world is ‘falling into serious disrepair’ (61). For two centuries ‘we have hurt and mistreated our common home like never before’ (53) and are engulfed in ‘a spiral of self-destruction’ (163). Our way of living is contaminating the earth’s waters, its land and its air; we are losing forests and woodlands, and stripping the world of its natural resources; each year thousands of plant and animal species disappear, while we generate millions of tons of waste, much of it non-biodegradable, toxic or radioactive.”

The encyclical points to the human dimension of the crisis, including increasing economic inequality that leaves billions of people in poverty. “It highlights the structurally perverse way in which the resources of developing nations enhance the quality of life in wealthy nations, while the vital needs of their own citizens go unaddressed; and the fact that environmental degradation has a particularly negative impact on those who are poorest and most vulnerable,” said Bolen.

Bolen noted the apt timing of the local workshop, held in the weeks before world leaders gather for a United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (Nov. 30 to Dec. 11), and also coinciding with the launch of a fall campaign of awareness and action on climate change in parishes across the country by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

The 2015 Climate of Change postcard campaign is inviting individuals to commit to reducing their personal “carbon footprint,” while asking the Prime Minister of Canada to adopt a “fair, ambitious, and legally-binding international agreement on climate change.” The Development and Peace mail-in postcard also asks the Prime Minister to provide resources for the most vulnerable communities in the world to adapt to climate change, and to move “Canada’s fossil-fuel dependent economy towards one that is based on energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

In a letter written for the Development and Peace fall campaign in his role as chair of the Justice and Peace Commission for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bolen said: “It is not too late to intervene positively, to shoulder our responsibilities, to make a real difference by learning anew to think and act with a large and compassionate vision.”

Bolen stressed that prosperous nations like Canada bear a special responsibility. “(We) are not living in a way which is sustainable; nor are we living in a way which can be replicated the world over. And we are among those who do have the human and economic resources to take initiatives both in relation to the environment and in addressing the needs of our sisters and brothers in need in developing nations. But it would require a genuine conversion from us, with personal, corporate, economic and political dimensions.”

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for a clear look at the environmental crisis and problems of global inequality and poverty, Bolen added. “He speaks of obstructionist attitudes, the masking of problems and manipulation of information, the sweeping of difficult questions under the carpet, the prioritizing of short-term gain and private or national interests above the global common good, and treating issues of environmental concern or global poverty as an afterthought.”

What is needed is a universal solidarity, recognizing our shared responsibility for others and for the world, said Bolen. “This includes a responsibility towards future generations, as the environment ‘is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next’ (Laudato Si’, 159). Do we love our children and grandchildren, and their descendants, enough to value their future over our dysfunctional global systems and current ways of relating with the environment?”

Caring about the earth is a key aspect of Christian faith, added Bolen. “The God revealed in Jesus Christ also speaks to us through the natural world. Furthermore, written into creation and the created order is the challenge to live meaningfully together on this planet; God has given us this challenge,” he said, before again quoting Laudato Si: “Everything is interconnected, and… genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others (70).”

Speaker Peter Prebble then provided an overview of global climate change, using Laudato Si’ as the framework for walking through a litany of research, statistics and scientific reports showing the severity of the problem and the need for urgent action, before examining Saskatchewan’s role in the issue.

Presently serving as Director of Environmental Policy for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Prebble was an MLA in Saskatchewan for 16 years, serving as legislative secretary to Premier Lorne Calvert for Renewable Energy Development and Conservation. He has been involved in variety of initiatives addressing ecological concerns, wind power, solar energy, and energy conservation.

Prebble began by presenting some of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the global warming trend, caused by human activity, in particular the release of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels. The impact is already being seen in severe weather events throughout the world as the water cycle is affected, as well as in the rising acidity of the oceans and a decline in marine ecosystems, and the loss of species and biodiversity occurring at an alarming rate across the globe, Prebble related.

Laudato Si’ describes how the impact of climate change is greatest on vulnerable peoples of the world– that was even evident in Saskatchewan this summer, as some 13,000 northerners were forced to flee their homes as a result of severe forest fires, Prebble noted.

“One of the things about climate change is that in warmer atmospheres, the atmosphere is able to absorb more moisture, and is able then to drop that moisture in a much more intensive fashion. So we are getting these heavier rainfall events, and we are witnessing this in many parts of the world, including our own part of the world,” Prebble said, noting the increasing severity of floods and droughts the world over. He also pointed to the dramatic increase in disaster assistance spending in Saskatchewan from $1.5 million in 2002 to some $157 million in 2012, $72 million in 2013 and $46 million in 2014.

The impact of climate change on crop production and food security is also affecting the most vulnerable, he added.

“There has been a tragic increase in the number of migrants seeking to flee the enormous poverty caused by environmental difficulties and degradation, (who are) not recognized by international convention as refugees, who bear the loss of lives left behind, without enjoying any legal protection.”

He quoted Pope Francis’s observations, stressing: “our well being is fundamentally linked to the health of ecosystems on our planet.”

Prebble stressed the need for immediate action. “To have a 66 per cent chance of staying below an average global temperature increase of two degrees centigrade, which is the UN’s official objective, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that humanity’s total global carbon release must not exceed 790 billion tonnes. As of 2011 – it was at 515 billion tonnes, and rising at 10.4 billion tonnes a year. Do the math. We have about 20 or 25 years at our current rate of fossil fuel use to use up our entire budget for carbon for hundreds of years into the future.”

Saskatchewan average greenhouse gas emissions are 74.8 million tonnes per year – three times the Canadian emissions per capita average, and some 10 times the world per capita average, reported Prebble. “Obviously, one has to take into effect our climate, but given that all parts of the world are going to need to phase out fossil fuels, it is urgent that we sharply reduce our emissions as quickly as possible.”

Oil, gas and mining industries account for 34 per cent of that emissions total in this province, while electricity is 21 per cent, and business and personal transportation combined account for 30 per cent. “My estimate based on very conservative US data is that the cost of our annual damage to the world from our own greenhouse gasses in Saskatchewan is annually $ 2.67 billion,” he said.

Prebble pointed to the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s “Climate Friendly Zone” campaign encouraging individuals to take personal steps to increase energy efficiency, and reduce the use of fossil fuels. However, public policy also matters hugely on this issue, he stressed.

“The very conservative Inter-government Panel on Climate Change issued a statement in 2011 that said that close to 80 per cent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century. But this is the key: ‘if backed by the right, enabling public policy’,” Prebble said.

“Pope Francis says: ‘We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay’ (Laudato Si’ 165). So what does that mean in Saskatchewan where we get 47 percent of all our electricity from coal? It means that we need to get on with phasing out coal in this province. We shouldn’t be waiting for the federal government to set rules on this. We should get busy and follow the lead of Ontario who has already phased out their 19 coal-fired generating units.”

Burning coal for electricity can be replaced with a wide mix of energy resources, said Prebble, listing options for generating electricity through wind, solar, biomass, and hydro.

“We are at three per cent wind now. Places like South Dakota are getting 25 per cent of their electricity from wind. I think we are just as well positioned to get to that percentage of wind power,” he said. “Why is it now that Ontario has 2,000 megawatts of solar, and we don’t even have one, and we have a better sunlight resource than Ontario does?”

There should also be investment in energy conservation, and incentives to encourage energy conservation by industry, he added. Regulations that would restrict methane release during oil extraction are another important strategy cited by Prebble. Public policy decisions are also needed to reduce fossil fuel use – including an end to fossil fuel subsidies, he said. A carbon tax is another possible public policy strategy, as is making public transportation a priority, and other steps such as reducing speed limits.

“We could reinstate passenger rail service…. It has been  more than 25 years now since there was passenger train service between Saskatoon and Regina. We could be going down to watch the Riders play on the train instead of driving down.”

One example of how to reduce emissions in agriculture would be to stop overgrazing, and to restore community pastures, Prebble added.

Encouraging energy efficient buildings and construction could be done on a large scale, he said, calling for changes to building codes and creative programs to encourage conservation retrofits on the part of crown corporation SaskEnergy.

“This is an amazing encyclical and I think that the pope has inspired many people around the world with it. We clearly have many, many practical things that we can do to act on his inspirational message right here at home,” said Prebble.

“We should keep in mind his message about our obligations to the poor as we debate in our own communities about how deeply we are prepared to cut our own greenhouse gas emissions. We should keep in mind his words about intergenerational responsibility. And we should keep in mind his words about our obligations to indigenous peoples as we are doing our planning.”

Sacrifices – both personal and collective – are going to be necessary in the journey to address climate change, Prebble said, particularly in a province like Saskatchewan, which is heavily reliant on coal, oil and natural gas.

“I think that we need to begin to say as a community that we are prepared to make some sacrifice while protecting those that are low income in our province, and that we are prepared to make this transition knowing at the end of the day there will be significant economic growth to come once the transition period is done,” he said. “I don’t think the transition period will be easy in Saskatchewan. But I think that the transition period is a moral imperative.”

The workshop continued Oct. 24, 2015 at Queen’s House, with presentations by Dr. Cristina Vanin of St. Jerome’s College, Hugh Wood, a University of Saskatchewan Physicist and Armella Sonntag, provincial animator of Development and Peace.