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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Pope in Dialogue with Oil Execs
distributed 6/15/18 - ©2018

Exactly three years ago, Pope Francis published his encyclical, Laudato Si', as a way to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home." His appeal to "all people" was broadly inclusive, but the encyclical also got specific, naming political, economic and scientific communities that needed to be part of the conversation.

This last week, Francis met with top executives from many of the world's largest oil companies and managers of major investment funds to spell out his perspective on climate justice. Seeing how the Pope enters into this kind of dialogue provides guidance for the rest of us who seek to bring moral concerns into climate policy.

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The encyclical is an important theological and ethical document which deals with far more than climate change. (Check out a very short summary if you're not familiar with it. Better yet, read the whole thing [PDF this summer!) Rooted in Catholic social teaching, and relevant to our rapidly-changing world, Francis spells out a perspective that he calls "integral ecology" which is quite similar to what other ethicists call "eco-justice."

After my speed-read of the document on the day it was released, I wrote:

The encyclical was written, it appears to me, because 'particular interests or ideologies' contrary to the common good have dominated the debate for far too long. The distorted values of consumer culture, the power of multinational corporations which now exceed that of many nations, philosophies which see people and creatures simply as resources to be used, economic systems which are motivated only by short-term profits, a mindset which glorifies technology -- these are some of the powers that Francis seeks to challenge through moral dialogue. 'Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.'

This week's meeting at the Vatican provide some vivid insights into how that frank dialogue might take place. It is a more forceful conversation than I envisioned.

The invitation-only event was a two-day conference, "Energy Transition and Care for Our Common Home." Francis, apparently, did not sit in on the whole meeting. Rather, he held an audience with the executives. A photo of that audience, published as part of the good National Catholic Reporter story, was revealing to me. It shows a large room at the Vatican, with marble floors and frescos on the wall. The Pope stands on a raised platform, reading a statement. 40 feet away, in two rows of stiff-backed chairs, the execs sit with their hands folded in their laps. One Catholic advocate called it the Pope "preaching to the not-yet-converted."

The Associated Press said that Francis' words to the executives "put them on notice for their 'continued search for fossil fuel reserves,' 2 years after the Paris climate accord 'clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground.' "

"Dialogue" in this context, it appears, isn't an informal one-on-one conversation, held out of the public view. For Francis, dialogue means a vigorous and empowered expression of the moral perspectives which have not been adequately represented in policy-making.

If the moral voice has been excluded and silenced up until now, dialogue means getting ethical perspectives onto the table in a way that must be taken seriously. As one news report put it, "Pope Francis has put his foot down: Climate change is such a pressing issue that science and religion must come together for the good of all people."

What did Francis put on the table, in fairly non-negotiable terms? He named the "clear and profound realization that the earth is a single system and that humanity, likewise, is a single whole." He said that "civilization requires energy, but energy must not destroy civilization." And he invited the executives "to be the core of a group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems."

I'm not sure what sort of conversation happened at the rest of the Vatican's two day conference, but the way that Francis controlled the agenda during his audience is a helpful and hopeful expression of dialogue for these challenging times.

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The Pope's assertive form of dialogue in the public sphere gives me fresh insights about how those of us committed to climate justice might go about our activism. In my home state of Colorado, I now can see a very controversial political move as a form of dialogue.

There's an effort underway to get an initiative on next fall's ballot in Colorado. The Colorado Rising initiative deals with health and safety issues related to oil and gas production. Currently, a well can be drilled and fracked if it is more than 500 feet from a home, or 1,000 feet from a school building, hospital or other public facility. (School athletic fields, interestingly, can be much closer to well sites.) The proposed initiative would increase that setback to 2,500 feet. Eco-Justice Ministries has endorsed the initiative.

Qualifying for the ballot is hard work. Over 200,000 signatures will have to be collected. (Let me know if you're a registered voter in Colorado and you'd like to sign!) We only take on that daunting task because we believe that economic interests have dominated the state's energy policy, and that moral concerns about health and climate impacts have not been heard. Multiple efforts to provide some form of local control over drilling, or to give greater consideration to health issues, have been blocked in the legislature, in commission hearings, and in the courts.

If enough petition signatures are certified, and the measure is placed on next fall's ballot, there will be months of advocacy for and against the initiative. The oil and gas industry is expected to spend many millions of dollars on advertising and messaging. Advocates of the measure will spend far less money, and use thousands of volunteers to share the plan for greater setbacks.

Seeing pictures and reading reports from the Vatican helps me to see this hard-nosed, conflictual political process as precisely the sort of "dialogue" that Pope Francis called for in the encyclical. A ballot initiative is one way to guarantee that moral questions are brought into the decision-making process for Colorado's energy policy. It puts ethical perspectives onto the table in a way that must be taken seriously.

In the encyclical, Francis wrote, "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all." That conversation is a political one, not a personal set of discussions. The Pope wrote the encyclical to insist that this conversation, which includes very powerful and well-funded interests, also has to make room for the empowered voice of those who stand for "integral ecology" and eco-justice.

A real conversation, a real dialogue, levels the playing field between the interest groups taking part. The oil industry has been called the wealthiest and most powerful industry in human history, and they've controlled the conversation for a long time. Dialogue means that opposing perspectives need to claim paths to strong public visibility.

Colorado's ballot initiative -- along with other strategies to empower the moral voice across the country -- shows how to have a real dialogue in today's world.

In Colorado and elsewhere, may we have the courage and the commitment to take these bold stands, to put our message on the table in ways that cannot be ignored, and to take our place as participants in these essential conversations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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