The Moral Implications of Climate Change

Connecting the dots between Catholic social teaching and the combustion of fossil fuels


Katie Otterbeck

You may have heard of the actions of an environmental activist group on campus entitled We Are 9, or seen a pin on a coat or backpack featuring a globe with the number 9 over it. The group began in a conversation that found mutual frustration over the University’s inaction on the climate crisis, and set out to do more than GreeND could ever do to put pressure on ND to be on the right side of history. The group, We Are 9, started the Fossil Free ND movement, which join the global divestment movement. In the winter of 2014, Fossil Free ND was about 30 people strong, and we walked together into the office of our president to deliver the signatures of over 1,000 members of our ND community, urging our administration to remove our financial investment from fossil fuel corporations.

Divestment from fossil fuel corporations is appropriate and right under the ethical implications of these corporations continued economic benefit from climate wreckage, which disproportionately affects the world’s most poor and vulnerable populations. Climate change is undeniably a moral issue, representing the world’s greatest threat to human rights and global inequality. In response to our petition drop, we were granted a meeting with President Jenkins. My work as a student activist has transformed into my capstone for the sustainability minor and my future career aspirations. As part of my capstone project, I have created a blog called Catholics and Climate.

Go Irish, Beat Coal

In the spring of 2014, Ball State University permanently shut down its coal-fired boilers that had powered the university since the 1940s, as their geothermal energy operations became fully functional. The geothermal system cuts the university’s carbon footprint in half. A geothermal system uses the stable underground Earth temperature, usually around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, as a heat source or sink, transferring the heat to one place or another rather than producing heat from combustion of fuels, saving an enormous amount of energy. Today, Ball state’s geothermal system heats and cools 47 buildings on campus, and saves the university $2 million annually. The implementation of geothermal at Ball State demonstrates that geothermal energy coupled with heat pump technology can be used on large-scale distribution systems and since the ground-source energy can be used in every state, the environmental and economic implications have national reach.

So why doesn’t Notre Dame join Ball State, a public university in Muncie Indiana, in shutting down its coal-fired boilers and implementing a geothermal system? We certainly have the economic resources to make such a project happen. The cost of a geothermal pump system, which would improve air quality, reduce our carbon footprint, and pay for itself in around 40 years, would be dwarfed by the $400 million Campus Crossroads project happening on campus now, which includes such lavish accessories as VIP football luxury boxes. The implementation of a geothermal pump system is also feasible technically. A geological survey conducted on campus in 2012 suggested that our campus is entirely suitable for the retrofitting and new infrastructure needed to implement geothermal. The project would also allow for job creation for South Bend and Mishawaka residents, areas where unemployment, homelessness, and poverty are higher than the national average for cities our size. However, no plans have been made to include a geothermal pump system in the Campus Crossroads project, nor to cease the burning of coal on campus.

I find myself most passionate about indirect violence in particular because it is hidden from our view and our conceptions of what violence looks like in our world today. Among these indirect crimes against humanity is climate change, especially in terms of our continued reliance on and subsequent extraction and combustion of dirty fossil fuels despite a growing body of research that directly links these dirty energy sources with environmental degradation and harmful effects on human health, especially the world’s poor and vulnerable populations. This represents a global crisis of social injustice that is fueled by the capitalistic incentive of an elite minority of the world’s population.

To state more clearly, climate change is a social justice crisis because those who are hit the hardest by the effects of climate change, the 14 poor and vulnerable populations of the world that directly rely on the sustainability and vitality of ecosystems and ecosystem services for survival, are the least responsible for the climate crisis. Those who are the most responsible for the climate crisis are those who have the resources to protect themselves from its adverse effects on the environment – perhaps especially monetary resources that provide avenues for import if and when food and water supplies are limited, and public sanitation infrastructure. Even more directly, the extraction processes of fossil fuels like oil and coal and the waste dumping sites of major polluters almost exclusively take place in poor and minority communities, where justice for the adverse health consequences of these extraction and dumping processes, including cancer and respiratory diseases, is rarely served in the absence of monetary and legal resources. Finally, the combustion of fossil fuels emits harmful pollutants that contribute to global warming and directly impact the health of people within the surrounding communities. The combustion of coal releases harmful ozone into the atmosphere that contributes to climate change and degrades the air quality of surrounding communities to levels that pose a threat to human health.

Lead on clean energy: The right side of history

With the enormous potential for clean energy in Indiana, the transition to clean energy supports job creation, human health, and community engagement. New businesses in Indiana are employing Hoosiers to work in energy technology, schools are better able to invest in their students by reducing energy waste, and churches and congregations in the state are saving money on energy bills through the efficiency of solar energy. These investments would also support the in-state opportunities for graduates from Indiana’s prestigious universities, and allow the state to transition more smoothly into a sustainable future. In the state, research and ethical institutions, namely universities, should lead on transitioning into clean energy. Ball State University is leading in clean energy and emission reduction standards. It is time for Notre Dame to follow suit. If for no other reason, the recent loss of our beloved Father Ted Hesburgh should remind us to act on issues that matter. In his own words:

To avoid the taint of intellectual and moral mediocrity, to be willing to stand for something, even something unpopular, if it is good, to be willing to be a minority of one if need be – this is part of the commitment.   - The Hesburgh Papers, 1979