Now is the time to act to protect the planet, advocates say

October 25, 2022

Roy Nlemba, a master farmer with Houston’s Plant It Forward Farms, tends a half-acre urban farm at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

HOUSTON — Scientists and local leaders at recent Archdiocesan conference on environmental issues said the Church must do more to heed the call of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’” to mitigate and prevent the dire consequences to human life stemming from climate change caused by human activity.

Quoting the encyclical, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo opened the Oct. 1 conference by emphasizing that the call to action and solidarity by all to be responsible for the care of “God’s handiwork is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

More than 100 people attended the “Faith in Action for Our Common Home” conference held at St. Dominic Center. The Archdiocese’s first-of-its-kind conference was prompted by growing concern about the state of the environment in light of the pope’s encyclical in which he calls on Catholics and non-Catholics unite to protect “our common home.

Dr. Philip Sakimoto, director of the sustainability studies program at the University of Notre Dame, a keynote speaker, said if we don’t act now, we can expect more death and destruction from extreme weather events and massive migration as people seek to escape increasingly hostile environments.

At right, Sister Maureen O'Connell, OP, director of the Secretariat for Social Concerns of the Archdiocese, speaks during a panel presentation during an Oct. 1 conference on environmental issues at St. Dominic Center in Houston.

Taking a theological approach, Sister Linda Gibler, OP, also a keynote speaker, said Catholics have a duty to take care of one another and the environment that God has created. Sister Gibler referred to “integral ecology,” the Church’s approach to tackling today’s ecological crisis by everyone working together to protect the planet.

“When we care for creation, we are caring for the poor,” Sister Gibler said, noting that all are dependent for life on God’s gift of the natural world.

Sakimoto, who has attended Vatican events on the environment, also painted a dire picture with glaciers and polar ice caps melting at an accelerated rate, rising ocean temperatures and extreme weather across the globe, including the droughts and wildfires in the southern and western U.S. and recent Hurricanes Ian and Fiona.

“We can expect more and more of these extreme weather catastrophes every year,” Sakimoto said.

He added the cost, in terms of deaths, clean up, food shortages and migration will only increase, saying there could be an estimated 200 million asylum seekers by 2050.

The goal of the conference, organizers said, was to spotlight the Church’s moral obligation to make caring for the environment a priority.

Panelists of everyday activists in Galveston-Houston called on Church leaders to make climate change a top issue, whether it’s in the homilies or supporting parishioners who want to take action and galvanize others into action in their parishes and personal lives. Living simply, conscientiously, and with concern for the impacts of our consumption and behavior on our neighbors and the natural world are core to leading a Christian way of life, they said.

Roger Ingersoll, a Catholic climate educator, said the biggest obstacles to addressing climate change are apathy and a lack of urgency. He said climate change that impacts all life should be the top priority of the U.S. bishops’ conference. One speaker, Sister Ricca Dimalibot, CCVI, spoke of the health threats to fetal life by air pollution, which affects the developing brains and lungs of unborn babies.

“Climate change is a critical life issue,” Ingersoll said. “The Church needs to ... be consistent about life.”

Deanna Ennis, director of construction and preventative maintenance for the Archdiocese, said she would like to see more urgency for combatting climate change from more priests and Church leaders.

“We don’t hear about these issues in the pews — that’s pretty stunning,” Ennis said. “We have to learn, to educate, to act. We have to be willing to change.”

Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson said many of the obstacles to combatting climate change, especially in Texas, boil down to economics. He said there is an unwillingness of pastors of all faiths to address climate change, knowing that many of their parishioners are involved in or invested in oil and gas.

“We fundamentally have to transform our economy in ways that are unimaginable to people who are over 40,” Tomlinson said. “We have to cooperate, innovate and compromise, and most of all, we have to set aside our pride.”

While the situation is dire, Sister Gibler said they believe the window of opportunity is still open.

“We have time to do something, but the time is now,” Sister Gibler said.

Sakimoto called on Catholic organizations across the globe to make a commitment to fight climate change by coming up with their own plan and putting it into action. He advocated for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, changing the means of energy production, switching to a plant-based diet, and buying less “stuff.”

Ennis said the Archdiocese is concentrating on energy efficiency in parishes and pointed out that all electric contracts now draw power from renewable sources. At the parish level, Ennis said staff and parishioners can reduce energy costs and create “care teams” to raise awareness.

Deacon Arturo Monterrubio and his wife Esperanza of St. Paul the Apostle in Nassau Bay were eager to take what they had learned and raise awareness in their Spanish-speaking church community about the desperate need to fight climate change and change habits.

“This is an opportunity to make clear the message from the pope’s Laudato Si’ — read it, practice it, and respond to it,” Deacon Monterrubio said.

Locally, there are bright spots. Robby Robinson, field operations manager for Buffalo Bayou Partnership, said the bayou is cleaner, and there is more wildlife in the 10 square miles encompassed in the revitalization of the bayou. But he also said there also is a proliferation of plastic.

Tommy Garcia-Prats’ urban farm program Finca Tres Robles promotes healthy food production for the East End community.

Alexa Rivas Gassan and Gabriella Palmer, students at St. Catherine’s Montessori, said the school has switched to plant-based cleaning products, installed water stations to fill up bottles, and is discouraging single-use plastics.