Earlier this summer, the Vatican published the papal encyclical Laudato Si’, promoting sustainable development and environmentalism, and Pope Francis subsequently declared his intention to deliver an address to the United Nations General Assembly on the issue. Boston College faculty used this as a chance to engage students on the topic, organizing the event Our Common Home: An Ethical Summons to Tackle Climate Change, which will run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1.
Rev. James Keenan, S.J., one of the event’s principal organizers, reached out to Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped to draft the encyclical. Postgraduate students across the natural and social science disciplines and in the Jesuit Institute, the Volunteer and Service Learning Center, and the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, worked alongside BC faculty to create the skeleton of the event.
Key speakers at the event include Massachusetts State Senator Ed Markey, BC ’68 and BC Law ’72, John Holdren, the White House Assistant to the President on Science and Technology, and Edouard Tetreau, a member of the Vatican’ s Cortile dei Gentili scientific committee.
Keenan believes in the responsibility of BC to guide discussion and tackle these ethical issues. But especially for this conference, he does not only seek to engage Catholic or Christian notions of ethics.
“I think it’s incumbent on a Catholic university—we believe in creation—that somehow we respond to the fact that we have put creation at risk,” Keenan said. “I think that the other faith traditions at this university welcome that attentiveness to creation.”
The University also has a significant role as the host of the conference. As a Jesuit university under a Jesuit pope, BC has the opportunity to create a unique forum for topical discussion. The conference organizers also hope that beginning the event the day after Pope Francis leaves the United States will prove strategic and create an interesting space for dialogue in light of his UN address.
“I think it’s a sign of how much the Boston College community is interested in the messages that are in the encyclical document: justice, environmental awareness, environmental action, action to help the world’s poor,” said Brian Gareau, associate professor of sociology at BC. “These are all in the encyclical and are all I think tied to the mission of BC, and I think those are the very things that attract a lot of undergraduate students.”
Each day of the four-day conference focuses on a slightly different aspect of the encyclical’s implications. Day one involved discussions of the document itself, with an address from Cardinal Turkson in the afternoon. The next session looks forward to the Sustainable Innovation Forum at the UN’s COP21 in Paris this December. The third day is concerned with theology and ethics. Unlike at most events engaging the topic of climate change, the scientific perspective on the issue will remain absent.
“The encyclical actually does a very nice job of laying out the scientific understanding of climate change,” said Noah Snyder, an associate professor in Earth and Environmental Studies and a key organizer of the event. “We wanted to really explore the encyclical itself and what it means and what it means to the international climate change policy process.”
The final day will include a reflection period through Campus Ministry, the “What Can I Do?” fair with representatives from campus and community organizations, and a keynote address from Dr. Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. All of the day’s events are designed to empower the BC community, especially its students, to think about and discuss the moral issues of climate change and to take environmentally-sustainable action.
“Everybody can do things, tangible things, that help us toward sustainability and help you to feel connected,” said Laura Hake, associate professor of biology. She and other involved faculty hope that students with class conflicts can find ways to attend the events and integrate this co-curricular learning into their studies.
Gareau noted that the effects of this conference are potentially wide-reaching and that climate change concerns are not only issues of science, but present economic inequality and social problems as well. He also makes the important point that despite the Jesuit original nature of the new discussion of climate change, everyone has a responsibility to sustainability.
“It’s not addressed to Catholics, it’s not addressed to bishops,” he said about the encyclical. “It’s addressed to the world.”
The event organizers hope that “Our Common Home: An Ethical Summons to Tackle Climate Change” will be an opportunity not only for BC students and faculty to discuss and work toward sustainability and environmental awareness but also for BC to rise among world universities as a center for academic development and action.
“BC is always mindful of social justice,” Keenan said. “I’m hoping now that BC sees the threats to creation as morally significant and calling for urgent response.”
Featured Image courtesy of AP Exchange