CORVALLIS — “We must not be afraid to go into the desert and to transform it into a forest.” Those were the words of Pope Francis at Earth Day 2016 in Rome, where he perhaps knowingly set the stage for the church’s next steps in climate change. The pope’s issuance of “Laudato Si’” in 2015 was the important first step; a document timely for uncluttered analysis, detail and directness. Issues were clearly stated. Impacts on humanity from our extraction practices from our “common home” were not fogged or moderated. The imperative for action was direct. It was clear that the pope seeks performance in climate change.
Much has been accomplished since the release of the encyclical, especially in the area of developing processes for performance in climate change. Educational programs have been introduced to lay parishioners allowing them to adopt changes within their own homes (energy-saving measures, reduced water use, waste recycling). Tutorials have been designed for inclusion in theological curricula for priests and religious communities. Some parishes have taken leadership roles in incorporating clean energy like solar power in their buildings. And support for policy changes within state, national and international political arenas for climate change action is evident. These processes are important to tackling climate change. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to Congress in January, seeks action on climate change and a commitment to climate reform efforts. All of these acts are to be celebrated.
Yet the political and financial mechanisms that oppose climate change still seem overwhelming. Compounding that concern, Catholic clergy seem alarmingly uninformed and untrained in “stewardship shepharding” that is in sync with the encyclical’s imperative. With all the efforts undertaken thus far, it is notable that the church lacks a coordinated, larger scale strategy for producing real performance in climate change. This lack of strategy comes at a most crucial time when continued leadership at the national level is not expected. As a result, many are left with a sense of hopelessness over what they can do.
The Catholic Church is at a pivotal moment. Global information system (GIS) technology has recently been used to identify and map every building (church, hospital, etc.) and land asset (forestlands, undeveloped real estate, etc.) owned by the Catholic Church worldwide. This is important because the church is large enough to move markets and policy if it operates in solidarity. For example, in addition to parishes, almost 15 percent of all acute care hospitals in the nation are now either owned by or affiliated with the Catholic Church. In 10 U.S. states, the number of Catholic hospitals is more than 30 percent. With GIS information, it is possible to develop an internal coordinated strategy for systematically purchasing and installing clean energy technology in buildings owned by the church at reduced costs. Monitoring actual reduced emissions and cost savings would be accomplished at a landscape scale so important to documenting performance in climate change reform. The visibility of the Catholic Church practicing what it preaches cannot be understated or over-valued.
Similarly, we can implement the growing of forests on lands owned by the church, and take a leadership role in supporting sustainable forest management practices on all forest lands both publicly and privately owned. Why focus on forests in climate change reform? The answer might surprise you. We now know that forests stunningly out-perform almost all other climate change reform efforts in storing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The Oregon Global Warming Commission just released data documenting that Oregon’s forests store 50 percent of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
In Oregon, more than 60,000 family forestland owners who collectively own 30 percent of all Oregon family forests live below the annual median family income level or at poverty level. Nationally, the numbers are the same. These family forestland owners are the quiet poor in America
The growth of Catholics in the United States is shifting to forested lands in the West and Southwest. And we know that we now have the technology to grow forests in our deserts. Just drive through the deserts of the Columbia River Gorge where around Boardman you’ll see more than 20,000 dense acres of poplar forests growing.
The importance of growing forests is not just focused in the United States. In 2016, the children of Kenya planted thousands of trees in their new Pope Francis Forest.
Indeed, the pope’s 2016 Earth Day message was not only hopeful, it was prophetic. The U.S. bishops continue to underscore the clear message from the pope: “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history.”
I agree. The Catholic Church matched to climate change leadership is an uncommonly important fit for our “common home.” It’s time to perform.
The writer is president of a family forest products engineering firm and a senior fellow with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. She is a member of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.