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Esty Sounds Alarm on Climate Change at Forum; Panelists Echo Sentiment

Papal encyclical on environment inspires discussion

From left are Professors Barbara Pierce, Brian Stiltner, Lucjan Orlowski, Father Anthony Ciorra, Provost Laura Niesen de Abruna and Dan Esty.

Dan Esty, former state commissioner overseeing environmental protection, delivered a commanding, compelling and passionate message at Schine Auditorium in the fall: climate change is real, and we must unify quickly under new leadership to make a moral and spiritual commitment to addressing the ecological crisis our world faces.

Esty, who is Hillhouse Professor at Yale University and former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), served as the keynote speaker at a forum presented by SHU’s Human Journey Colloquia Series titled, “New Leadership on Climate Change: From Mayors to the Pope.” It took place the week before Pope Francis delivered a speech about climate change at the United Nations, before the largest group of international leaders ever assembled there.

Sacred Heart’s Fr. Anthony Ciorra, facilitator and associate vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity, introduced Esty at the Schine forum. Joining them were SHU’s Barbara Pierce, associate professor, biology; Brian Stiltner, chair and professor of theology, religious studies and philosophy; and Lucian Orlowski, professor of economics.

Their discussion was inspired by and revolved around Pope Francis’ book, Laudato Si, the first papal encyclical focused solely on the environment. A full house of students, faculty and community members attended the free presentation.

“This is a perfect, special and critical moment,” Esty said, “not just because the pope is coming next week, but because the United Nations is finalizing sustainable development goals and global quantitative targets with regard to a 21st-century approach to ecological problem-solving, designed to achieve better results than past efforts.” He warned that the policy area must be more careful not to silo decision-making as plans move forward.

Esty also referred to Ban Ki-moon, current Secretary-General of the United Nations, who spearheaded the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. The pope’s encyclical, calling for action against human-caused climate change, aimed to influence the conference.

Twenty-five years ago, when Esty was a young official with the EPA in Washington, D.C., he helped establish the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which provided for yearly meetings among nations going forward. “Since then, we’ve had much success, but little real success,” with regard to worldwide progress, Esty said. “The world community is poised to do much better than the previous generation, but new leadership is inescapably important.”

He explained that the old plan was “top down” and not well executed, and that presidents and prime ministers have little influence on policies day-to-day. “We need broader engagement to shift the world to cleaner energy solutions. We need to bring in mayors, provincial leaders and corporate leaders and get them involved,” suggested Esty. He also advised a “shift to a much sharper action orientation” and establishing a new structure of measures and performance-tracking to inspire competition and sharing of best practices.

According to Esty, the U.S. alone must make a minimum investment of $100 billion a year to reframe the country’s infrastructure to achieve a clean energy future. He pointed to smart approaches like Connecticut Green Bank, which leverages public and private funds to drive investment and scale up clean energy deployment across the state.

Esty also called for penalties and laws that prevent businesses from damaging the environment. “Businesses can’t continue to make pollution society’s problem,” he said.

Concluding with an echo of Pope Francis’ sentiments, Esty said we must be committed to something greater than ourselves and be better stewards of the Earth. “Think of the Earth as a sister, a mother, a member of the family. The abuse of this family member is unacceptable,” he said.

SHU panelists were in step with Esty’s comments, particularly with regard to people’s moral obligation to the planet. Pierce said blaming population growth for climate issues is convenient, but it’s not necessarily the case. “This is beyond a science issue and running out of resources,” she said. “This is an issue of ‘how do we treat something that is giving back to us?’ There has to be a moral obligation to bettering and the common good.”

Stiltner remarked on the pope’s joyful nature and his view of the world, and that it “should be a joy to be connected to the Earth.”

Orlowski commented, “All human beings should be entitled to the fruits of Mother Earth, and none of us have the right to plunder them. The main problem for this pope is the disconnect between the poorest among us and their access to the fruits.”

Esty speaks during the forum.

Esty speaks during the forum.