By Elizabeth Fuhr
First, our economy discreetly sacrificed Black and Latino communities to pollution, as with the Suncor oil refinery spewing hydrogen cyanide gas in north Denver for several decades. Then, we let fine particulate air pollution from dirty energy take the lives of 200,000 Americans annually, according to researchers based at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. That’s our current COVID-19 death toll happening every year. Now, with our burning planet visible to all, perhaps this time it has gone too far. A remarkable 81% of Colorado voters now say it should be a priority to pass climate change legislation, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
There is much talk about moral values in political platforms. I believe that caring for the environment is a moral value that is very much overlooked. I am a religious sister based in Denver, a Franciscan from a long tradition of caring for the Earth, our common home. I believe we must recover a belief that is resonant with people of all faiths: the environment is a gift from God, and the way we respond with gratitude is to pass a healthy environment on to the next generation.
Something has gone awry. Human lives and a stable climate should not be sacrificed for the financial gains of a few. The cost of inaction is becoming more and more public, whether it’s the refusal to act on the science of coronavirus or climate change. We cannot ignore the 200,000 COVID-19 deaths to date in our country, with one of the worst death rates in the world. The wildfires and hurricanes are making the cost of refusing to act on climate change nightly news. Our experience matches the scientific projections: The hotter temperatures are drying out the forests for bigger blazes and giving hurricanes more energy and rain. The National Hurricane Center ran out of names this season for just the second time since 1953.
Pope Francis bluntly calls out the broken priorities: “Nowadays there is an economy that kills. In the world economy, we do not find man or woman at the center, but rather the god of money.” The pope asserts in his major Church document, Laudato Si, that the solution involves “redefining our notion of progress.” He continues, “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world … cannot be considered progress.”
Real progress is shared prosperity across the human family that is sustainable and respectful of the Earth. The environment is a gift. Our ancestors passed it to us, and we have a sacred responsibility to pass a stable environment onto our children and grandchildren. This moral obligation can resonate with all faith traditions.
My Christian tradition states that the gift of the Earth belongs to God, not us. We are just tenants here, stewards. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that it holds” (Psalm 24). Pope Francis calls it a “shared inheritance.” We need to recover the moral value of being a part of a larger web of life and relationships. The Psalms point to an expansive mystery of interconnectedness in God’s creation. We are humbled by how small we are and how big God is. Faith brings us to gratitude as we ask, “How can I repay the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (Psalm 116).
Respecting the gift of the environment is a universal moral value. We hope for leaders who will be guided by these values and lead us out of the shortsighted place in which we find ourselves. This is especially true of the U.S. Senate right now, where climate change legislation has continually been blocked.
The beauty is, this universal moral value can come from any of our U.S. senators or candidates: Sen. Cory Gardner as a Lutheran, Senate candidate John Hickenlooper as a Quaker, and Sen. Michael Bennet as a religiously unaffiliated person with Jewish and Christian roots. It’s encouraging to see attempts are being made to finally take action. A committee of U.S. senators, including Bennet, created a commendable action plan in August to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and create millions of jobs in clean energy and efficiency.
Our decades of reckless carbon pollution are now manifesting in worsening disasters. It makes our moral responsibilities increasingly clear. One final quote from Pope Francis presents us with an ethic to forge a new future: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”
In a world that is burning, our values for our common home are being revealed. May God help us be good and decent to ourselves and to our shared inheritance.
Sister Elizabeth Fuhr is a Sister of Saint Francis of Penance and Christian Charity based in Denver.