Related: Business Issues, Catholic issues, Environment, Political Issues, Politics, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues

Environmental Justice Is Our Responsibility


Eagle at sunset(Eagle soaring at sunset, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge)

Caring for God’s Creation is one of the seven major tenets of the Catholic social justice teachings that infuse Trinity’s mission and work in education every day.  Acting to protect the environment is essential to human life and dignity; environmental degradation in all of its forms is a major threat to human health and economic security.

No single nation owns the air, the rivers and oceans, the green cover of trees and grass that are the lungs of the planet.  Environmental protection can only occur through broad-based solidarity among all people in neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, states and nations acting together.  None of us alone can keep the air clean, ensure enough fresh water for all, care for the health and vitality of the natural world we depend on for human life to flourish.  Life in all of its glorious forms transcends the human invention of nation states and borders; eagles have no care for which country they soar across, oceans touch many shores, monarch butterflies will defy a southwest wall, birds transcend continents on their annual migrations on the great flyways, a river that rises high in the mountains of one nation will sustain many; fish swim free heedless of political debates but endangered by short-sighted and selfish economic and political decisions.

eagles roosting at sunset(Eagles roosting at sunset, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge)

Because care for the environment as a fundamental condition for human life to flourish depends on the solidarity and cooperation of nations, the departure of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement is a shocking rejection of the most fundamental moral idea of nations acting together to achieve the common good for all people as a matter of justice for all.  The short-sighted and selfish decision of our political leadership to separate this great nation from all others — from 194 other nations — the U.S. standing in isolation only with Syria and Nicaragua — is an embarrassment to the millions of citizens of this nation who care deeply about our neighbors around the world, and who also know that our welfare depends heavily on international cooperation and mutual trust.  That trust was shattered in just a few days last week in an intemperate and deeply injurious political choice to sever ties with all other nations on the topic of mutual efforts to address the causes of harmful climate change, which is what the Paris Accords are all about.

Political spite is not an acceptable governing principle, but spite seems to be the motivating force for this decision.  Whether the spite is about the previous administration that spent years negotiating the Paris Accord, or a comment by one world leader about another, what’s clear is that the decision reflects the worst of our current politics, which seem largely devoid of any serious scientific facts or moral considerations.

we are still in logoAcross the United States, leaders are mobilizing to ensure that the spirit of the Paris Accord on climate change will continue to be honored by states and cities, corporations and many institutions including colleges and universities.  Mayor Muriel Bowser has affirmed D.C.’s commitment to uphold the Paris Agreement.  Today I signed onto the #WeAreStillIn Agreement with 180 other university presidents to express Trinity’s continuing solidarity with all other institutions and people who believe that caring for God’s creation is an integral part of ensuring the future for human life to flourish.

I have often written in this blog about the importance of environmental issues.  Two years ago I devoted my Adirondack Chronicles series to Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment in which he stated so clearly:

“I urgently appeal…for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.  We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all…We require a new and universal solidarity…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.” Pope Francis, #14 in the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home

Clearly, when they met two weeks ago Pope Francis tried to get President Trump to understand the urgency of the leadership of the United States in sustaining the remarkable worldwide coalition of nations and leaders in the agreement that called for each nation to do what it could to address climate change.  No part of the Paris Accord is binding; each nation negotiated their own terms and each is free to comply at will.  The Accord is more symbolic than regulatory, but symbolism is very important for the global community’s expression of solidarity to act in the fact of severe and immediate threats to climate and related major ecosystems — whether the ozone layer or melting ice shelves or rising seas or disappearing species.

President Trump rejected Pope Francis and the entreaties of other world leaders, and said he withdrew the United States from the Paris Accord to protect U.S. interests.  He seems ignorant of the plain fact that what’s good for the planet IS what’s in the best interests of the United States and future generations of our citizens.  Pope Francis said it very well:

“We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, play the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.” (Laudato Si #36)

eagle in flight(Eagle in flight.  Photos by Pat McGuire)

See also the statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the withdrawal from the Paris Accord.

What can Trinity do to address climate change and issues in environmental justice?  We are a small institution with limited resources, but that’s not a reason to stand on the sidelines.  Everyone must contribute whatever is possible to environmental protection.   We already have taken a number of steps at Trinity to do so, and will do more in the future.  The most obvious steps we have taken thus far include:

  1.  Our new Payden Academic Center is LEED Certified meaning that it meets modern environmental sustainability standards;
  2. With our Aramark Facilities partner we separate and recycle trash to the greatest extent possible;
  3. We urge everyone to reduce the use of paper; the increased use of technological tools, ebooks, Moodle coursework and online communication has significantly reduced paper consumption;
  4. Our older buildings certainly pose challenges for reducing our carbon footprint, but we are always looking for ways to reduce energy consumption; future renovations will surely include more advanced systems to manage energy.  Meanwhile — seriously! — turn off those lights and air conditioners when you leave the rooms!!

Our faculty is also working on significantly expanded work in Environmental Science and Studies.  Dr. Shizuka Hsieh in Chemistry is part of a team studying pollution in Ivy City in DC, for example, and the impact of decisions such as the location of bus garages on the air quality in neighborhoods.  Dr. Diana Watts of the Business faculty is developing a focus on sustainability.  Meanwhile, an interdisciplinary group of faculty working through the SENCER program (Science Engagement for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) is threading environmental considerations throughout many courses.

Our SENCER faculty group have made this statement in response to the action of the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement:

“Responding to the growing and alarming changes in the global environment and their societal impact, we, a group of multidisciplinary faculty, formed a working group dedicated to strategically promote the teaching and learning of environmental issues and sustainability in our disciplinary content classes. Our inspiration comes from SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities), a nationwide community of like-minded academics with a mission of bringing civic engagement into science education. Ideally we empower students to use science to make positive societal change in our courses. We are passionate about making our students environmentally scientifically literate and preparing them to critically think about the scientific, social, and ethical factors that can collectively be studied to find solutions to environmental problems.

“Our classes address the science of how greenhouse gases work to warm the planet and cause climate change. Both SENCER and Trinity’s mission for social justice prompt us to take that environmental lesson further to articulate the effects on individuals across the globe and the actions we ourselves can take to reduce carbon footprints. ENVS101 teaches climate change in with a focus on the effect of women. Students research and communicate the vulnerabilities to drought, sea level rise, and extreme weather events for women in different countries, bringing to the fore what Pope Francis calls attention to, how “the gravest of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” (Laudato Si’, 48 quoting the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference).  We recognize the injustice that the United States, 4% of the world population, is responsible for 15% of anthropogenic emissions. We recognize the injustice that those who suffer the consequences of climate change the most are those in developing countries (Laudato Si’, 48).  Using science to find actions to counter climate change is exactly what the SENCER way of thinking calls us to do.

“The Paris accord was significant because of the unity in recognizing the devastating effects of climate change and the need to do something to change things (SENCER ideal). We are therefore disheartened by the recent announcement made by President Trump that US will no longer be a member of the Paris agreement.”

What is your response to the Paris Agreement and the U.S. position on climate change action?  Share your ideas in the comment box below.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: