Catholic leaders have long stressed the importance of environmental sustainability. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI both spoke on this issue, and in 2015 Pope Francis drew attention to the environment in his encyclical Laudato Si’.
Dan Misleh, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant and of Catholic Energies, says that addressing climate change remains a priority for Catholics: “Without the earth, we wouldn’t exist, so it’s important for us to take care of our common home.”
Caring for Creation and the Poor
Catholic Climate Covenant was founded in 2006 with support from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services, and other partner organizations. Caring for creation and the poor is central to the organization’s mission, and Misleh explains that concern for the environment and for disadvantaged people go hand in hand. He points to natural disasters in countries like India and Bangladesh and says that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere cause larger, more dangerous storms. Often, the poor are among those most devastated by extreme weather events, and they generally lack the resources to rebuild. In effect, those who contribute the least to rising carbon emissions are suffering the worst consequences of climate change, according to Misleh. “We really have to be mindful of the impacts on the poorest of the poor.”
Catholic Climate Covenant pursues its mission through advocacy and education, including its Catholic Climate Ambassadors program, which invites experts to speak on Catholic teachings and the environment. It also provides resources for Earth Day and the Feast of St. Francis, for homilists, and for parishes that want to reduce their carbon footprint.
Its Creation Care Teams bring together members of parish or school communities to address environmental issues from a Catholic perspective. The teams find ways their organizations can save energy and reduce waste, from small initiatives like switching from Styrofoam cups to ceramic mugs to larger projects such as introducing a recycling program.
“It’s always easier to walk together than to walk separately,” Misleh says. According to him, Creation Care Teams are “a way to help people do something together that they probably would get frustrated trying to do on their own.”
Helping Organizations Implement Energy-Efficient Solutions
Catholic Energies, another Catholic Climate Covenant program, helps Catholic organizations design, develop, and finance solar power and other sustainable energy projects. Installing solar arrays both reduces CO2 production and creates an opportunity to share teachings on how to care for the Earth. Additionally, it results in significant cost savings for participating organizations. “If we can swap out all the lighting fixtures and bulbs in a school from incandescents or compact fluorescents to LEDs . . . the payback would probably be in two or three years,” Misleh says. They would be saving thousands of dollars on their electric bill.”
In turn, the savings from switching to renewable energy free up resources organizations can use to further their missions. “A parish can hire a youth minister with that,” Misleh points out. “A school can get two or three scholarships to students who otherwise couldn’t afford their school. There are just so many great benefits to reducing operating costs through these energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects. There is a ripple effect that you simply won’t get just maintaining the status quo.”
Recently, Misleh traveled with a partner on his team to Immaculate Conception parish in Hampton, Virginia, to dedicate a Catholic Energies solar array. The array was one of Catholic Energies’ first solar projects and is ready to turn on. “It’s an exciting project,” Misleh says. “The savings that will be realized with that solar project will go toward funding a Creation Care team for that parish and helping that team do other educational and energy efficiency projects.”
Building a Solar Array for Catholic Charities in Washington, DC
In June 2019, a Catholic Energies–developed solar project broke ground for an array for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. The two-megawatt, ground-based system is slated to be one of the largest solar installations in the city. The organization expects energy costs at 12 of Catholic Charities’ buildings to be offset by the project. “It essentially takes their electric rate from about 11 cents, through the local utility, to about two and a half cents through the solar program. So it’s a massive savings of about 70% electric costs,” Misleh says.
“That cost will then go back into the core mission of Catholic Charities, which is to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for those who are suffering,” he continues. “It’s doing all of those great things, because now they have all of that money, the savings, that they can use to bolster their core mission activities.”
Positioning Faith Leaders and Investors to Embrace Renewables
Misleh says he believes it’s important to raise awareness among faith-based organizations about the benefits of energy-efficient and renewable technologies because stakeholders may be skeptical of proposals to dramatically reduce energy costs. “There needs to be a lot of education about this work within the faith community,” he says. “Our biggest challenge has been to convince pastors, principals, and CFOs that these projects are not too good to be true, because when they look at the savings that they achieve through these projects, it doesn’t seem possible.”
Misleh also notes that busy faith leaders generally don’t have time to research energy efficiency and oversee all aspects of a project. Catholic Energies comes in to handle the details of implementation and eliminate barriers to adopting renewable energy. “If we are going to move in the direction of doing more of these types of projects, there has to be an entity within the faith community that can manage those projects for them—because they simply won’t have the time to do it. And that’s what Catholic Energies tries to do,” he says. The goal is to tell parishes and schools, “The most you’re going to have to do is give us 12 months of your electric bill so we can analyze your usage, and open the door when the installers come.”
In addition to getting this message out to faith-based organizations, Misleh says it’s important to educate investors on the potential of renewable energy: “They think that the returns have to be below market rate, and that’s not necessarily true in solar.”