EDMONTON (CCN) — Alberta religious, environmental, industry and Aboriginal leaders hailed Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment as a positive contribution to saving the planet.
While some called it a guidepost for the energy industry, others greeted it as a call to a new lifestyle reflective of our duties to God, neighbour and nature.
In the letter, the pope cites a solid scientific consensus indicating that global warming is real, and will limit drinking water, harm agriculture, lead to some extinctions of plant and animal life, acidify oceans and raise sea levels in a way that could flood some of the world’s biggest cities.
He says some climate change is naturally occurring, but scientific studies indicate global warming mainly results from human activity.
Archbishop Richard Smith led a panel discussion and press conference on the encyclical at the Pastoral and Administration Offices following the release of the papal letter June 18. St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio and three other leaders joined him in the discussion.
Smith said the pope’s letter is not just another in a line of similar statements on the environment, but a hymn of praise and thanks to God for the gift of creation.
“This letter, addressed to all people, is the cry of a man deeply in love with God and the created world. This love gives rise to a heartfelt lament over the degradation in the natural and human realms, especially among the poor,” the archbishop said.
“Yet it is also a love which leads ultimately to hope that we shall find a way forward by which we shall learn, once again, both to cultivate and preserve this garden of the earth, which is the common home of all.”
Asked how realistic it is to move away from fossil fuels in a country that depends heavily on them, Smith said the question should be “How realistic would it be to avoid the whole question?”
“I think we understand that fossil fuels over the next little while will continue to be necessary given the economy’s total dependency upon this but there is a widespread recognition, and we heard it even recently from the G8 leaders, that we do need to move away from this.”
Smith said one main goal of the encyclical is to provoke discussion about the state of the environment to determine together how best to move forward.
Terrio, whose diocese includes the Wood Buffalo region and the Athabasca oilsands, referred to his predecessor, Bishop Luc Bouchard, who in 2009 released a pastoral statement, The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands.
In it, Bouchard called for a halt to new oilsands projects until urgent environmental issues and Aboriginal concerns were addressed.
Like Pope Francis, Bouchard said all living creatures and even the earth itself are gifts from God that should be safeguarded.
Terrio called Bouchard’s letter “prophetic” as it preceded Francis’ anticipated encyclical. “That the pope now says to the whole church and indeed to the whole world what was said six years ago locally in St. Paul is both timely and heathy,” he said.
Terrio noted that prior to becoming a bishop, he was the pastor in Spruce Grove where many oil workers at Fort McMurray made their permanent home.
Bouchard’s letter was basically ignored, and when it was mentioned by oil patch people “they felt that their jobs had been threatened and that they even were told that their jobs were morally questionable,” Terrio said.
“Of course that’s certainly not what the letter was saying,” he continued.
“Indeed in his pastoral letter (Bouchard) explicitly said the critical points in this letter (were) not directed to the working people of Fort McMurray, but to the oil executives in Calgary and Houston, government leaders in Edmonton and Ottawa and to the general public whose excessive consumerist lifestyle drives the demand for oil.”
Terrio hopes that through the pope’s encyclical “the people of the Diocese of St. Paul will now see the truly international dimensions of our problems.”
As well, he hopes they hear the pope’s plea for a dialogue “which intends to lead all of us to an ecological conversion.”
Eric Newell, former CEO of Syncrude Canada who recently co-chaired an expert panel on emerging technologies to reduce the environmental impacts of oilsands development, described the pope’s encyclical as “a very profound paper that probably we are going to be debating for years.”
Newell said protecting the earth is going to take “everyone doing their part and every nation.”
“Even though Canada produces less than two per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions, is still no reason for us not have targets and to meet them,” he said.
“We have to achieve a reduction and we have done that at the oilsands. If we are not seen as doing our role on this issue for the whole planet then we’ll lose our social licence.”
However, meeting gas emission targets is a challenge for the industry due to the increasing world demand for energy, Newell pointed out.
“We have a bit of a moral dilemma because we are a resource-based economy and we are blessed with resources such as the oilsands and yet the world’s got tremendous energy demands ahead of us,” he noted.
“The international energy agency says the demand for energy will grow by 37 per cent between now and 2040. That’s a huge amount and whether we like it or not that growth is going to have to come from fossil fuels.”
Canada faces the challenge of increasing production to meet rising world energy demand while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Newell said.
To achieve serious reduction “we need some transformative technology,” he said.
Andrew Read, a technical and policy analyst for the Pembina Institute, said it is clear that “the choices we are making today in how we produce and use energy are destroying the very natural systems that sustain us.
“I appreciate the pope bringing attention to our moral obligation to co-operatively work together to provide care for our common home and ensure its longevity.”
When faced with massive challenges such as climate change, it is easy to feel downtrodden, said Read. “But as Pope Francis says, ‘We are still capable of intervening positively. We are still capable of adjusting the course that we are on and protecting the environment that sustains our lives.’ ”
Society needs to remain committed to further developing technologies such as solar and wind energy, the environmentalist said.
“It is time to accelerate the transition away from non-renewal forms of energy that granted us great achievements but also set us on a path for great misfortune.”
Cree/Métis elder Betty Letendre, manager of the Council of Elders at Edmonton Catholic Schools, welcomed the papal letter, saying Aboriginal people have always seen themselves as children of the earth.
“We are stewards of the earth because whatever we do to the earth, our mother, we do to ourselves.”
Letendre grew up in a traditional way “on the trapline, and hunting and fishing for our food.” Even today she goes back home where her brother lives off the land in a cabin with no running water and no electricity.
“I’m not a scientist but I know what is being done to our earth,” she said. “We must take care of our common home.
“I love what the Holy Father has to say: all of us have to come together to find a way to come together to mend what’s broken. Whatever we do and the decisions that are made I would ask that my people be part of those discussions.”