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Coal country and the future of our climate: Two pitfalls to avoid

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As the United Nations climate summit takes place in Poland, we are reminded of the serious threat that climate change poses to the planet. These negotiations will address the details and specific mechanisms for the implementation of the carbon reduction goals established by the Paris Agreement in 2015. It is urgent that all nations, especially the most developed and highest carbon emitters, take immediate steps to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDC’s).

The United States is the world’s largest energy producer and energy consumer. Despite President Trump’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the U.S. will be present at the climate negotiations since international law determines commitments must be honored at least until 2020. Both the practical and symbolic dimensions of the negotiations are relevant to the American people and those affected by our energy consumption.

{mosads}The fact that the meeting will be held in Katowice, Poland is deeply symbolic and presents an important opportunity for the future of the planet. Katowice stands at the heart of Silesia where mining dates back to the Iron Age. To this day, coal accounts for 80 percent of Poland’s electricity generation and most of it comes from Silesian mines. There are deep ties between coal and culture that include, yet also transcend, economic considerations.

These critical climate negotiations must integrate ambitious climate reduction goals with transition policies that are just for those affected by the cultural and economic changes. Perhaps most importantly, the Katowice summit will be challenged to honor and respect the hard work and lifestyles of those who will be adversely affected by changes to climate policies. 

In the United States, there are also many communities whose livelihood, culture and history are rooted in fossil fuel extraction. Already in their 1975 pastoral letter, “This Land Is Home to Me,” the Catholic bishops of Appalachia spoke of the distress affecting mining communities and called for an “emphasis on the economic questions, for these are the first and most basic questions for all people.” Many of America’s coal mining communities along with their deteriorated lands and waters are often among the forgotten and “excluded… treated merely as collateral damage” within a world that charges forward towards rapid changes in energy production and consumption. 

The roadmap established in Poland must balance environmental concerns with the economic and cultural well-being of affected communities and will require a broad social transformation. Stewardship of creation need not be opposed to meeting real energy needs and economic prosperity.

This integration of environment, culture, economy, climate, history and society is exactly what Pope Francis meant by ‘integral ecology’ in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’. The Pope reminded us that “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together” and that a “true ecological approach always becomes a social approach.” To this end, COP 24 must make a positive contribution to the international climate process with clear and ambitious goals while raising special awareness for poor and vulnerable people and their communities. 

In order to be successful, the negotiations will need to avoid two pitfalls. The first is a common generalization when it comes to just energy transition policies. Assurances of “green jobs” are inadequate for people who are not specifically trained for them. Furthermore, there must be a specific regional and local focus on those adversely affected by the transition to a low greenhouse gas emission economy. It is necessary for jobs to be created for those who have lost their jobs in their regional locales in order to minimize social and cultural disruption.

{mossecondads}The second pitfall that must be avoided is to use this transition as an excuse to weaken the Paris Agreement commitments. Climate change is no longer a future threat, it is a present reality. The planet continues to warm with droughts growing longer, floods becoming more frequent, and once a century weather events becoming regular occurrences with the poorest absorbing the brunt of it. We must take decisive action now. Both an ambitious dedication to meeting nationally determined contributions (NDC’s) as well as special care for the local economy of workers are needed. In order to avert the opposition of these two valuable goals, COP 24 will need to clearly affirm both of them and what they have in common: the priority of the poor, excluded and forgotten.         

If the interests of the marginalized are kept front and center in the discussions, the path of integration is possible. When it comes to climate change, the excluded are the islanders under threat of sea level rise, the poor who cannot protect themselves from weather disasters and coal miners whose livelihoods are threatened by energy transitions.

Jesus had a preferential option for the “least of these” and expressed a stern reprimand to those who hold power. As long as the climate negotiations “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” as Pope Francis stated, and steer away from the interests of the few, a path forward will be possible.

Frank J. Dewane of Venice is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio is archbishop of the Military Services, USA and chairman of the U.S. Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Tags Climate change Climate change policy Climate history Climatology Donald Trump Global warming United Nations Climate Change Conference
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