By PJ Williams
In the fall of 2021 world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26. This annual meeting orchestrated by the United Nations has provided a forum for countries to discuss what can be done to combat climate change.
During one panel on how climate change is affecting indigenous youth around the world, moderators played video questions submitted by students. The first question was from a Yap Catholic High School senior named Nadley. She discussed how severe changes in weather have been affecting the island of Yap, damaging both their crops and houses. Nadley asked, “What can we do to protect our finite island resources for future generations?”
Yap Catholic High School (YCHS) is a Jesuit school located in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in the Pacific. While the FSM is spread out over 1,802 miles, the 607 islands that comprise it are fairly small. But YCHS is not the only Jesuit high school in Micronesia facing challenges from climate change.
In 2015, Super Typhoon Maysak hit the island of Chuuk and disrupted the source of water for Xavier High School, the other Jesuit high school in Micronesia. “Our banana trees, breadfruits, and other local crops were damaged; we had to buy water from Guam and local stores,” said Xavier’s principal, Martin Carl. The school faced a similar challenge in March 2020 amid Covid-19 and a drought on the island. “Xavier catches drinking water from rain. We do not have water from the city or government. So, when there is a drought, we have to ration water,” continued Principal Carl.
While Chuuk does not have a large population (it is comparable to a large town in the United States), the students and faculty of Xavier Micronesia are doing what they can to contribute to the fight against climate change.
“Last year we started this program, we call it Laudato si Fridays,” said Principal Carl. The program gets its name from the encyclical on the environment published by Pope Francis in 2015. “Students and staff participate in Laudato si prayers, reflections, planting trees, composting, gardening, and picking up trash on and off campus.” The school also invites experts on the environment to come and discuss climate change and its effects.
In addition to the Pope’s encyclical, Principal Carl points to an instance in the New Testament that underscores why Catholics have a responsibility to be stewards of the environment. “When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, ‘You shall love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbors as you love yourself.’ So, there is no way we can claim that we love God but continue to live a life that disregards the environment which affects other human beings.”
The idea that caring for the environment is part of being a faithful Catholic is being explored even more in-depth at a different Jesuit school in the province.
Maura Toomb Estevez is a theology teacher at Regis High School in New York City and the chair of the school’s theology department. She teaches a senior elective called Environmental Theology, which focuses less on the science of why the climate is changing but rather on the responsibility Catholics have in combating it. “A student asked me ‘Why do you call this course environmental theology and not environmental justice?’ Because the call to care for the environment grows from our faith,” explains Toomb Estevez.
The course covers the theological roots of caring for creation as well as relevant Catholic documents like Laudato si. It also incorporates the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Jesuits, especially the fourth Apostolic Preference, Caring for our Common Home. “Jesuit schools were always interested in sustainability, but I think the Universal Apostolic Preferences have really catalyzed action around this in a more meaningful way,” said Toomb Estevez.
The class highlights this with a section focused on what Jesuit institutions are doing to live out their missions as they pertain to caring for the environment. During this section, students are asked to present changes that Regis can implement to help better care for the environment. “They’ve presented ideas like ‘Regis should compost all of its waste,’ or ‘Regis should have a course requirement that considers the environment and how to care for it.’”
Another focus of the class is the tradeoffs presented by the different solutions to climate change. “For example, should we use a specific type of coolant if it’s better for the environment, but it harms people?” says Toomb Estevez. “How do we weigh what’s more important if we are called to be in relationship with others, God, and the environment?”
When asked what she hopes students take away from the class, Toomb Estevez wants them to “understand that to be a faithful Catholic means to care for the environment.” While these students may have different notions of what they need to do to care for the environment, Toomb Estevez says, “I hope that they do some kind of advocacy.”
Like Regis, Fordham Prep is also committed to caring for the environment and has been assessing what else they can do. Most recently they announced that they hope to be as close to zero waste as possible by 2024. This means an elimination of non-biodegradable waste from the school. While this may not sound like a major change, the reduced waste adds up.
“We’ve eliminated the sale of plastic water bottles; we actually estimated that we use on average 70,000 water bottles a year,” explains Brian Carney, the Vice President for Mission Integration and Planning at Fordham Prep. “Our goal is to install a fountain drink system in our cafeteria so that we can eliminate all the vending machines and have students use reusable bottles and compostable cups.”
But becoming zero waste is more than just the administration making changes. Students are playing a big role as well. While there are options for students to compost things in the lunchroom, they do not always sort things correctly. “We started a program called EcoRam where we have volunteers that essentially monitor the compost during lunch periods and the kids pick one period a cycle, and they’re on duty and directing the other students as to what goes into which receptacle,” said Carney. “We have about 50 students who are a part of that now. And I think in some ways that has energized the rest of the students. They see their classmates invested in this and I think it makes kids more concerned.”
For the past five years, Fordham Prep administrators have been having conversations about what else they can do to be environmentally sustainable. During the 2019-2020 school year, they created an environmental sustainability task force to write a set of strategic recommendations for sustainability. “It is very much driven by our Catholic tradition,” said Carney. “Especially with Laudato si in 2015, that really started several people in the school pushing us to look at these issues.”
While decreasing waste is a component of fighting climate change, it is just a start. In addition to teaching students what not to do, Fordham Prep is teaching students what they can do. “I think for the kids they want to do hands-on things, so we’re working to get them more involved in our greenhouse, actually growing and producing food,” said Carney. Fordham Prep is already looking at what they can do after becoming zero waste. Carney says that they hope to produce enough food from the greenhouse to donate to local food pantries in the Bronx.
While one greenhouse in the Bronx is not going to singlehandedly stop climate change, Principal Carl suggests that these kinds of actions are a start. “Sometimes we want to change the world, we want to make big contributions to stop climate change because world leaders talk about it, but the issue is people, they need to change, and it has to start at home.”