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Catholic leaders, White House officials talk climate change as COP28 nears

A group of delegates, including three U.S. Catholic bishops and the head of a conference of women religious, met with Biden administration officials Nov. 17 to discuss the Catholic Church’s priorities for what Pope Francis has called “our suffering planet.”

Leading members of the delegation included Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona; and Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of Yakima, Washington; along with Sister Carol Zinn, a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia and the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 302 U.S. religious congregations, who went to the White House to share their concerns in advance of COP28, the United Nations climate change conference held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

President Joe Biden is not expected to attend the Nov. 30-Dec. 12 summit.

The delegation spoke with the White House’s John Podesta, senior adviser to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation; Ali Zaidi, national climate adviser; and John McCarthy, senior adviser for political engagement.

“We’re not men and women of science, per se – although I would like to think we’re informed by science – we’re men and women of the Church,” Bishop Weisenburger told OSV News. “And we echo what we find in Scripture, consistent Church teaching – and brought into beautiful focus by Pope Francis in ‘Laudato Si’’ and ‘Laudate Deum’ – that this is not just a scientific matter or issue. This is a theological and spiritual matter.”

“When humanity forgets that we are a part of God’s creation – called to a genuine and loving stewardship of this marvelous gift – and we begin to mistreat the gift, we harm ourselves, and even worse, we harm innocent future generations,” Bishop Weisenburger added. “And so, there is a theological and ethical demand upon us to respond well.”

He found the Biden administration’s representatives receptive to that message.

“What I interpreted and heard from them was they’re grateful for anyone who leads with a powerful voice – such as the Holy Father’s – on such an important issue,” he said.

In the meeting, the bishops highlighted four Environmental Protection Agency policies that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has advocated to advance a healthier environment in the U.S. and moral leadership in the world: rules on methane, carbon pollution from power plants, soot pollution and emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

“We named the fact that there is an urgency to these issues, with the end of April being a key time to finalize the EPA rules amidst Congressional pressure,” said In Solidarity’s Lonnie Ellis, who was also part of the delegation. “We were pleased to hear that all four rules are on track to be finalized by the end of April.”

Ellis was impressed by “how seriously the White House took these faith leaders.”

So was Sister Carol.

“It was a conversation that was really a dialogue,” she explained. “There were insights that we had from our side of the experience of climate, and certainly insights that the administration had from their perspective – so the conversation happened between those perspectives ... It was a confirmation of the value of conversations at a table when you sit down with each other and just really share from your experience.”

“For me,” said Sister Carol, “it’s an affirmation of what we believe, as Catholic sisters, is the work right now, around any topic – climate crisis, or anything else – that we have got to find a way to really talk with each other, and understand one another’s perspectives, and one another’s experiences.”

Many of LCWR’s members are active in environmental protection efforts.

“We believe all of creation is a gift, and all of it reflects God,” Sister Carol. “It resonates very much with our vocation as consecrated religious, to be mindful of what are the needs of humans – and then, of course, what are the needs of all living beings.”

The president took steps before the Catholic delegation’s White House meeting to advance international cooperation on climate change. At a Nov. 15 face-to-face summit in Woodside, California, Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping agreed that the United States and China, which account for 38 percent of the world’s emissions fueling climate change, would “work together ... to rise up to one of the greatest challenges of our time,” according to a White House statement.

“We don’t see eye-to-eye with the Biden administration on every topic,” Bishop Tyson told OSV News regarding the White House visit. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t build a relationship. So, I thought that’s what we were able to do – just build a relationship; talk about the difficult issues.”

And while the upcoming presidential election season has supercharged the political environment, “ultimately, at the end of the day, we want to help Democrats be better Democrats, and Republicans be better Republicans. We don’t have a horse in the partisan race,” said Bishop Tyson. “Polarization occurs when we debate ideas and don’t focus on people.”

He has witnessed this dynamic at work in the Yakima Diocese, where competing agricultural and environmental interests sometimes clash throughout one of the most intensively irrigated areas in the U.S.

“We have to respectfully talk to each other, from our different viewpoints,” Bishop Tyson said.

With so much digital and print ink spilled about climate change, the delegates acknowledged would-be advocates may feel overwhelmed.

“When people say, ‘Where do we start?’, we start by reading,” said Bishop Weisenburger, adding that reading papal teachings like Pope Francis’s “Laudate Deum” – released in October as a follow-up to the 2015 “Laudato Si’” – can help “bring things into focus.”

“We have moved from climate change to talking about climate crisis,” said Sister Carol. “We no longer just need a conversation – we actually need to act and think in a different way.”