Laudato Si!: The Pope’s Call and Holy Cross’s Underwhelming Response
“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
– Pope Francis, Laudato Si!
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was ordained as Holy Father of the Catholic Church on May 13, 2013. He is now better known as Pope Francis—a name with far deeper meaning than a casual observer would appreciate. Cardinal Bergoglio took the name Francis for Saint Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Italy and one of the most revered religious figures in history. Saint Francis authored Canticle of the Creatures, a work meant to remind Catholics that “our home is like a sister with whom we share our life[;] a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” It is fitting, then, that on May 24, 2015, Pope Francis chose to publish the Church’s first encyclical letter concerning the environment: Laudato Si!: On Care for Our Common Home.
Laudato Si! is the Pope’s way of issuing an urgent call to action. Addressed to “all people of good will,” not just Catholics, the encyclical makes the case that immediate, significant steps must be taken to address the climate crisis facing everyone and everything that shares our planet. The “debate” over the science of climate change was settled long before Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si!, but a quick reminder that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 seems prudent. It will not be our children or even our grandchildren who will face the consequences of this trend; no, devastating changes will occur in our lifetimes. In fact, these changes are already occurring today, as Alif Kanji highlights in this illuminating ACI piece.
Turning now to Laudato Si!, five excerpts are worth highlighting so that we all fully appreciate the exigency and magnitude of Pope Francis’ call to action, and remind ourselves of our moral obligations to one another. These sections convey the encyclical’s vital themes, and save you the trouble of reading its lengthy entirety:
“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it…if present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
“Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.” All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”
“Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.”
“Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”
“Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.”
While it bears reiterating that Laudato Si! is directed at all people, one cannot deny that students of a Catholic school like the College of the Holy Cross have a particular obligation to take notice of the Pope’s proclamation. Regardless of one’s religion, or lack thereof, we cannot deny that the values which shape the Holy Cross community are heavily informed by Catholic principles. These principles, in turn, are guided by papal doctrine. When Pope Francis says that the time to act to prevent complete environmental destruction is now, we should waste no time responding.
Indeed, many students here on the Hill have participated in environmental initiatives that began both before and after Laudato Si! was published. Emily Sullivan ‘14 successfully campaigned to get the College to install 17 “hydration stations” around campus, which encourage the use of refillable water bottles and thus cut down waste from the use of plastic bottles. More recently, Marie Therese Kane ‘18 founded “HC Fossil Free,” a campaign mobilizing our community around divesting the Holy Cross endowment from the fossil fuel companies whose extraction and political influence have simultaneously fueled climate change and prevented comprehensive action to halt it. After a fishbowl discussion last year, the campaign hosted a kickoff mobilization event in October of 2016, and since then has worked to engage the student body on the issue of climate change while simultaneously pursuing dialogue with the College administration and the Board of Trustees. Finally, the Eco-Action Club has a variety of other ongoing initiatives aimed at decreasing waste and improving environmental efficiency throughout campus.
Student initiatives serve a vital purpose. As with any movement, for real change to occur, there must be momentum and dedication at the grassroots level, and Holy Cross students have demonstrated that they have this drive within them. However, real change also requires action at the institutional level. Let’s assume that we—17 to 23 year old students with minimal incomes and schedules constrained by academic, athletic, and extracurricular demands—really do have a moral obligation to protect and preserve the environment merely by virtue of being residents of our shared planet. Surely, then, a Catholic school with hundreds of millions of dollars and numerous well-educated professionals at its disposal would be equally obligated to address the climate crisis we face.
This line of thinking spurred your authors to apply to participate in the Weiss Summer Research Program during the summer of 2016. After winning a research grant, we set out to evaluate the progress Holy Cross has made in becoming more environmentally friendly; we began exploring the next steps the College could, even should, take to continue that process.
Before even arriving on campus for the summer, our preliminary research informed us that Holy Cross had signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment in September of 2007. This commitment meant that the College had pledged to become carbon neutral – to have a net-zero carbon footprint – by the year 2040. In pursuing that goal, then-president of Holy Cross Father McFarland established the Presidential Task Force on the Environment (PTFE), which has advised Father McFarland, Father Boroughs, and the Board of Trustees on how the College can optimize its pursuit of carbon neutrality. Led by the PTFE, Holy Cross has made substantial progress towards achieving carbon neutrality. Per a report published by the College in May 2016, Holy Cross’s carbon emissions through fiscal year 2014 were down 44% from 2007 levels—far ahead of the 20% reduction goal the College set for 2015 when it first made its commitment. Such admirable progress can be attributed to a range of PTFE-led initiatives, including holding all new construction projects to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-silver standards; using infrared cameras to identify heat loss in buildings; replacing inefficient light bulbs with cheaper, more efficient options; purchasing electricity generated by hydropower; and switching the fuel used for heating campus from oil to natural gas. These steps are not insignificant, and they absolutely merit praise – with 23 years to go, Holy Cross is a little less than halfway to becoming completely carbon neutral.
Unfortunately, the title of this article bemoans the College’s “underwhelming” response to Laudato Si! for a reason: the progress Holy Cross has made towards carbon neutrality is misleading. In the College’s own words – used in its 2014 progress report – its success in reducing carbon emissions thus far is a result of “harvesting low-hanging fruit.” In other words, doing the ‘easy stuff’ has reduced our emissions by 44%, but getting that next 56% will be much harder. Though we began our project optimistic that there may be a simple enough way to continue reducing emissions, our research quickly confirmed that the College is out of traditional, easy options.
So far, the vast majority of the progress Holy Cross has made in reducing its emissions has come from the College’s decision to switch from using fuel oil in the boiler plant to using natural gas, a far cleaner energy source (though still a fossil fuel). While natural gas is certainly preferable to fuel oil, the campus boiler plant still accounted for 68.8% of Holy Cross’ emissions in 2014. Finding a clean, efficient source of heat must be the College’s top priority if it remains serious about becoming carbon neutral by 2040. Accordingly, we investigated the viability of waste-to-energy, biomass gasification, solar thermal, and geothermal heat pump (GHP) systems. Full analyses of those systems can be found here, but the important takeaway was that geothermal holds substantial promise for the College: not only can GHP systems meet up to 100% of a facility’s heating and cooling needs, they produce zero carbon emissions. Better yet, GHPs can be drilled anywhere, not just near the hot springs of Iceland. While we were unable to get a definitive estimate of how much a GHP system would cost for any individual building on campus, every geothermal company we reached out to indicated that the payback period (from heating/cooling savings) for GHP systems was usually 5-10 years. This is an avenue that Holy Cross – as a Catholic institution with immense resources – must investigate further.
Most of the remaining reduction in Holy Cross’ emissions has come from the College’s decision to purchase its electricity from hydroelectric sources. By purchasing hydropower, Holy Cross can consider itself as having zero emissions stemming from its electrical usage. However, there are undesirable side effects that arise from the production of hydroelectric power. In particular, the electricity produced by hydro dams creates methane. Methane is a pollutant even more potent than carbon, and the threat posed by its release into the atmosphere may undermine the viability of hydropower as a “clean” energy source (Alif Kanji elaborates on this point here). For that reason, our research concluded by recommending that the College should pursue even cleaner sources of energy—in particular, solar power.
Early in our research project, we were able to conclude that solar power would be a very attractive option for Holy Cross in its effort to generate renewable energy. As we got deeper into our research, however, we were shocked to discover just how feasible solar power is—not just technically, but financially, as well. Given Holy Cross’ current electricity costs, the amount of rooftop space on campus, and information we researched about the typical solar-powered system, we were able to create a detailed financial model for a solar system unique to Holy Cross. The model is available here. In short, the model demonstrates that installing solar power would bring a larger internal rate of return on investment (14.61%*) for the College than the official target rate of return on the Holy Cross endowment provided by the College’s Investment Office (5%). Such a statement may seem bold or even improbable at first glance, but a close look at the actual numbers involved shows it to be indisputably accurate. The following paragraph provides an overview of those numbers, but, for the more economically-inclined, Kevin Lynch wrote a thorough piece on solar finance and options for Holy Cross involving its use, which is available here.
Installing solar panels throughout campus would cost Holy Cross approximately $3.9 million and provide 9.4% of the College’s electrical needs. Given that Holy Cross spends roughly $2.6 million per year on electricity, this would create $250,000 in annual energy savings. A second source of revenue would also arise in the form of the College selling Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). SRECs are awarded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to producers of clean energy who can, in turn, sell these credits to institutions that generate excessive emissions. Massachusetts’ strict emissions policies make SRECs quite valuable; assuming Holy Cross installed solar panels campus-wide, the College would make approximately $495,000 from SREC sales in the first year alone. These two revenue sources combined would create a total year one revenue of $745,000. Due to the minimal maintenance costs incurred by a solar-powered system, solar power would pay for itself in year 8 of its 25-year lifespan. Over the duration of those 25 years, solar panels at Holy Cross would yield a profit of $3.67 million!
This result is particularly exciting because it shows that Holy Cross need not sacrifice its economic interests for environmental efficiency in order to properly respond to Laudato Si! Nonetheless, as poor college students who cherish every cent we might be able to put towards laundry, we understand that the College might flinch at a $3.9 million investment. Therefore, we found it prudent to assess the viability of installing solar on a smaller scale, for example, just on the Hart Center.** Even only considering Hart, the numbers are still excellent. Given an up-front installation cost of $967,000, the real profit created by a system on Hart would be $660,000. While a system of this size offsets fewer carbon emissions, it would still be a strong symbol of Holy Cross’ commitment to the environment, in addition to being financially lucrative. It would be more profitable to purchase a larger system, but even if Holy Cross can only financially tolerate a smaller initial investment, this investment remains profitable. Considering these facts in light of Holy Cross’ substantial fundraising capabilities (the College’s February “I Love HC” Challenge raised $1.64 million in just 24 hours), the arguments against installing some form of solar system on campus would be limited at best and logically incoherent at worst.
To quote Pope Francis one last time: “efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term. If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable.” Even absent profitability, Holy Cross has an obligation to respond to Laudato Si!. Just consider the College’s mission statement, which asks us to consider “our obligations to one another” and our “special responsibility to the world’s poor and powerless.” This mission statement concludes by reminding us that we must “serve others and seek justice within and beyond the Holy Cross community.” By thus far refusing to respond substantively to Laudato Si!, Holy Cross both fails to maximize its potential to help address the environmental challenge we all face, and to live up to its commitment to protecting the world’s poor and powerless.
Fortunately, we have the power to rectify this situation. We urge the campus community—current and former—to unite in demanding that the Holy Cross administration take immediate, concrete, commonsense steps to respond to Laudato Si! and further the ultimate goal of achieving carbon neutrality. To this end, a petition to push the College to do exactly that will be launched on Tuesday, April 11th. This petition will ask Holy Cross to do three things:
Obtain a free quote from a reputable company (like Solar City) concerning the cost of solar panel installation on the Hart Center (extension included) no later than June 1, 2017
Contact GHP companies to obtain quotes for the cost of (1) retrofitting existing College buildings with GHP systems and (2) the cost of building GHP systems into future construction projects
Commit to seriously pursuing solar and/or GHP installation by no later than June 1, 2018 (provided that the College’s consultations with solar power and GHP companies confirm the projections referenced in the previous paragraphs)
Each and every one of us has a duty to do their part in preserving our common home. Given Pope Francis’ call to action in Laudato Si!, however, there has never been a more urgent need for Catholic institutions like the College of the Holy Cross to do their part in combatting this worsening climate crisis. Georgetown University—which has divested from coal companies and established an advisory committee made up of students and faculty that recommends socially responsible investments for the endowment—stands as a shining example of a Catholic university that has taken the initiative in responding to Laudato Si!. Substantive action from Holy Cross is a necessity; it was needed yesterday. Far more is required of us and our College before we can accurately claim to be part of the solution and not contributors to the problem.
If Holy Cross seeks to embrace its mission to “serve the wider world,” if it seeks to fulfill its obligations under Laudato Si!, it must take action now and pursue the installation and use of renewable technologies on campus. To that end, we—the student body—must speak out loudly and insist unequivocally that we will no longer be satisfied by picking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of environmental sustainability. The administration makes clear that it will not further act unless jolted forcibly out of complacency by the tireless voices of the many. Let us give this many a face. Let us give this many a name. Let us ensure that our College makes good on its solemn promise to our environment and our world. The clock is ticking.
*We arrived at this figure assuming that solar would be installed on all available rooftop space on campus.
**All calculations involving the Hart Center were done using the parameters of the old Hart Center and do not account for the new extension. Given the significant addition being constructed at this time, it is reasonable to assume that new Hart Center will have even more room for solar, meaning that these numbers should not be considered invalid.
(Disclaimer: All numbers in this article are approximate and were calculated using consistent but imperfect methods. We stand by their accuracy under our methods, but acknowledge that certain shortcomings (including having to measure rooftop space by hand, calculating the amount of solar panels that could fit using average panel sizes and accounting for factors like tilt using trigonometry) render our findings imperfect. Hopefully, the College can take our preliminary research and use it as the framework for a more comprehensive study.)