Three years after the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, two of the document’s challenges still resonate as strongly as they did when I first read them: “the use of highly polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay” (no. 165) and “the duty to care for creation through little daily actions” (no. 211).
Those of us concerned about climate change often talk about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to minimize global warming. We focus on threats to vulnerable communities from sea-level rise, stronger storms, droughts, and extreme heat. We pay attention to the impacts that the process of fossil fuel extraction has on poor and vulnerable communities.
We also need to make sure that the shift to renewable energy doesn’t repeat the human rights abuses and environmental destruction committed by the fossil fuel industry. While large-scale hydroelectric dams, solar farms, and wind farms can be climate solutions, they also can destroy eco-systems and human communities if local residents aren’t part of the conversation.
The Sisters of Mercy had all of these concerns in mind when we asked our institutions and ministries how they are reducing their reliance on fossil fuels while remaining attentive to the needs of the communities they serve.
The results have been inspiring. Most convents, schools and universities, social service centers, retreat centers, and administrative offices reported institutionalized recycling and reduced use of plastics. Many have converted or plan to convert to energy-efficient lighting and to upgrade heating and cooling systems for energy efficiency.
Examples of these Mercy-led efforts to implement the challenges put forth by Laudato Si’ include:
- The Convent of Mercy in Albany, NY, has entered into a contract to purchase electricity from a community solar farm being built on a Methodist church’s property about 20 miles away. This option supports clean, renewable energy for those who can’t install solar panels on their own property.
- Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, will establish an energy-use baseline in the fall so that staff can measure and compare the campus’ carbon footprint as they adopt new practices.
- Mercy Circle retirement community in Chicago, IL, which was built to strict energy efficiency standards, has vegetation growing on its roof for natural insulation.
- Mercy Farm in Benson, VT, has installed 20 solar panels, purchased certified energy-efficient appliances, and has timers on thermostats to limit energy use.
- Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, IA, has hired a sustainability director, is re-examining its 2012 plan to reduce greenhouse gases to identify next steps and is planting native plants to reduce watering and stormwater impacts.
Some Mercy facilities are reducing their fossil fuel usage in response to local, state, or national policies. For instance, Mount St. Mary’s Convent in Burlington, VT, benefits from a city government that has arranged for 100% of their electricity to come from nearby sustainably harvested wood and local hydroelectric, solar, and wind power.
It’s exciting to know—judging by the hundreds of Catholic dioceses, parishes, institutions, and organizations that expressed a commitment to addressing climate change by signing onto the Catholic Climate Declaration—that the Sisters of Mercy’s “little daily actions” are just a sampling of the collective efforts within the Church in the United States to respond to the challenges put forth in Laudato Si’.
Each of us can take steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Here are a few places you can visit for some ideas:
- The Catholic Energies program, which assists dioceses, parishes, and institutions with energy-efficiency projects and solar installations
- Catholic Climate Covenant for advocacy on climate change at the national and state levels, and education and liturgical materials
- The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, which includes a list of energy-efficiency products
Marianne Comfort is the Justice Coordinator for Earth, Anti-Racism, and Women for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.