From the international ministry of Ecojesuit to the pioneering sustainability initiatives of Loyola University of Chicago, the Society of Jesus has been increasingly engaged in the pursuit of environmental justice. Following Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’, the Jesuit Conference responded by making environmental justice a more intentional priority for advocacy efforts. In the encyclical, Francis writes:
“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
We recognize that environmental justice is intrinsically bound to all of our issue areas, with important implications for economic justice, racial justice, migration, and human rights.
The Disproportionate Burden of Climate Change
While the United States is the leading historical emitter of greenhouse gases, it is the developing world that already bears the brunt of the disastrous effects of climate change. Three countries that we focus much of our human rights advocacy on—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—are some of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change and extreme weather events (according to the Long-Term Climate Risk Index, no country has suffered more from extreme weather events over the last 20 years than Honduras). Laudato Si’ also states:
The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.
Even within the U.S., the poor suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation. Studies show that people of color in the U.S. are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white people, with dangerous infrastructure such as coal-fired power plants often located in communities of color. During the present drought in California, it is the poor who suffer most from the health hazards of contaminated drinking water. Research from the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University examines the harmful impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and hydraulic fracturing on public health and economic justice in West Virginia.
Climate Change and the United States
The U.S. continues to fall short of its obligation to protect the environment and pay back the “ecological debt” incurred from emitting the most greenhouse gases over the twentieth century. If we continue on the business-as-usual path, it is possible that environmental degradation will contribute to further displacement of vulnerable people, conflict, and injustice in the world. A just response to the challenge of climate change would be not only to lead on carbon emissions reduction, but also to assist developing countries with sustainable development to allow all humans to live a life of dignity without destroying the wonders of creation and jeopardizing the opportunities of future generations. As Pope Francis wrote,
“Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”