Catholics Take Action on Climate Change

Catholics Take Action on Climate Change

According to the Yale Program on Climate Communication, 70% of Americans are concerned about climate change but only 19% are doing something about it. Among those who are organizing to act on climate change are American Catholics--and the Archdiocese of Atlanta is leading the way with the release of an updated climate action plan.

Catholics Take Action on Climate Change

Laudato Si' Asks People of the Planet to Care for Creation and One Another

For some context, in June 2015, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, an encyclical, or letter, to the people of the planet asking them to care for creation and one another.

Typically, these encyclicals gather dust on a shelf, but this one caught fire among the faithful. Pope Francis, a chemist who is aware that our life support system--the Earth’s climate--is in crisis, said, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”

A Climate Action Plan for the Atlanta Catholic Community

While on the faculty of the University of Georgia (UGA), Dr. Rob McDowell and I wrote an Action Plan for the Atlanta Archdiocese, drawn from Pope Francis’ encyclical as recommended by former Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory. As scientists of faith, we felt a moral imperative to sustain the earth’s resources for future generations. Because of Pope Francis’ passionate plea, the team behind the Action Plan saw the opportunity to harness the power of the Catholic community.

An interdisciplinary and multi-faith group of UGA scientists reviewed the Plan and provided valuable feedback. Since Laudato Si’ presented a diversity of environmental issues facing humanity, from climate change to biodiversity, our goal was to provide concrete actions to address them. We ranked them as easy (turning off the lights), moderate (caulking cracks and planting trees), and advanced (buying an electric car and installing solar panels) giving everyone in parishes, schools, and people in the pews a roadmap for how they could contribute. After all, as the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states “Every year matters and every choice matters.”

Pilot Plan for North Georgia Catholic Parishes and Schools

After the release of our Laudato Si’ Action Plan in 2016, Archbishop Gregory sent copies to all North Georgia parishes and schools.

To help with the implementation, Catholic philanthropist and attorney Rutherford Seydel provided a grant to conduct a pilot project in 2017. Brian Savoie, an engineer and parishioner at St. Jude the Apostle, undertook the work with 12 churches and schools. He arranged for energy and water audits through Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL), helped to develop three-year improvement plans for energy and water efficiency, and provided assistance with writing grants to upgrade facilities.

The project has been overwhelmingly successful! The pilot group received $34,000 in funding for LED lamps, programmable thermostats, and insulation for retrofits. These upgrades alone were projected to reduce energy consumption by 16%. When St. Mary’s School in Rome, Georgia, replaced metal halide bulbs with LED lamps in their gym, they saved 50% on energy costs over two years.

drawdown georgia catholic church

Second Cohort Joins Catholic Climate Action Plan

More funding from both philanthropists and Catholic Foundations allowed a second cohort of 12 churches and schools to participate. Some parishes, like mine, chose to take off on their own to do the work. Over five years, the recycling, food waste, and energy efficiency initiatives undertaken by the St. John Neumann’s Creation Care Team reduced electricity costs by nearly $10,000, reduced waste going to the landfill by 50%, and lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 38%. Because the church runs efficiently and is not burdened with debt, it was able to fund the construction of eight houses for the homeless in Haiti.

A Climate Action Plan Template for Congregations Across the Country

The Atlanta Action Plan is now being used as a template for Archdioceses throughout the country including Boston, Washington D.C., Newark, San Diego, Minneapolis, and Seattle. A priest from Indonesia on sabbatical in the U.S. even requested to come to Atlanta to speak with Creation Care Team leaders to learn about their work.

Word of Georgia’s Laudato Si’ movement reached the Vatican. They invited Kat Doyle, Director of Justice and Peace Ministry, to represent U.S. parishes for their newly-formed global Laudato Si’ Action Platform because of our leadership among American Catholics.

The Archdiocese has updated the Action Plan with 23 experts, ranging from a scientist who is a member of the Academies of Arts and Sciences, Sciences, and Engineering to a monk who sustainably manages the land for the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The update places more emphasis on environmental justice and advanced technologies like virtual meetings to gather people without creating greenhouse gas emissions from driving.

Coordination with Drawdown Georgia Climate Change Solutions

The Laudato Si’ Care Creation Initiative spearheaded by the Archdiocese is also coordinating our work with Drawdown Georgia in areas of commonalities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Of the 20 high-impact solutions proposed by Drawdown Georgia, 17 are part of the updated Action Plan. These include energy audits and retrofits, installing solar panels, recycling, eating lower on the food chain, and composting. As a start, funding for Georgia’s Archdiocese of Atlanta Initiative will be raised this year by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal to pay two part-time sustainability coordinators, Brian Savoie, and Leonard Robinson.

drawdown georgia church solar panels

Pope Francis asks us “What kind of world do we want to leave to our children?” Georgia Catholics are hearing the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor and are beginning to make the ecological and ethical transformation necessary to care for Creation and one another.

To learn more or get involved, contact Kat Doyle at the Archdiocese of Atlanta, kdoyle@archatl.com, 404-920-7897.

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About Author

Susan Varlamoff
Susan Varlamoff

Susan M. Varlamoff is a biologist, author, lecturer, mother and grandmother. She is co-author of 2016 Laudato Si’ Action Plan, Editor and contributor to the 2021 Atlanta Laudato S’ Action Plan, and author of Sustainable Gardening for the Southeast.

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