CLIMATE ACTION is the ultimate pro-life movement.

Reclaiming the Narrative

Mary A. Colborn, Climate Action is the Ultimate Pro-life Movement

A few years ago my sister and I cleared away an old forgotten pile of wood on our family farm. As we were moving branch after branch and stacking chunks of wood, we startled a well-camouflaged toad. It responded to our intrusion by creeping deeper into the pile. Each time we shifted the pile and uncovered the toad, we’d call out to each other, “Watch out for the toad. Be careful you don’t hurt him.” Slowly, the pile dwindled and finally there was no wood left and no place to hide. Still the toad made an attempt by covering itself with a cluster of dry leaves. I was ready to wrap up the task, leave the toad where it was and find a new project, when my sister called out to my brother to come over and rake the site. Unfortunately, the first thing he did upon arriving was to make a swing with the rake toward the toad’s leafy hiding place. Together, my sister and I screamed out, “Watch out for the toad.”

I have no idea how the toad fared, because our little outburst set off a three hour rant. Shamed by us, my brother ranted and railed for hours about the “the crazy liberals who care more about the lives of toads than babies.” In confusion, I tried to explain that there were no babies present and certainly none at risk of being harmed. He just went deeper into his rant about abortion, adding insults on my character, focusing on the insane notion that I wanted to kill babies to save animals, like toads. As he continued his rant against “crazy environmentalists,” he grew more and more profane. I finally abandoned the work site for my own safety and left.

I tell you this story, not to share my personal struggles with right-wing family members, but to suggest instead that it is time for those of us who love the Earth to take back the narrative. We must get people to understand that our care for nature includes a deep and defining love for all life in it and upon it. We must make others know that we stand up for clean water, as so many of us did at Standing Rock and in Flint, because we love people. We recognize that people need clean air and clean water, as much as they need a connection to nature.

I say this, because we environmentalists have failed to adequately convey that we believe people matter and all life matters.

We who love the Earth must reclaim the pro-life narrative.

Pollution History: Air for Sale

Early in the ultimate pro-life movement: Selling fresh, clean desert air for 50 cents a balloonfull in front of Loew’s State Theatre in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 1954. Herald-Examiner Collection photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library.

Sixty-some years ago, when the environmental movement started picking up steam, it was not about climate change. Environmentalism’s narrative was, “We must stop harming the Earth and the life She supports.” Environmentalists recognized that we were poisoning our waters, polluting our air, causing health problems for ourselves, and breaking down the ecosystems that support life – including human life. In those days, environmentalism was the ultimate pro-life movement.

The movement has evolved. We’ve learned that the harm we’ve done to our environment is worse than we imagined. We’ve learned that we’re changing the Earth’s climate. Environmentalists have become climate activists. As climate change threatens the lives of unborn generations, we climate activists urgently need to reclaim the pro-life narrative.

Why does this make a difference?

This past election cycle, people of faith, specifically Catholics, were sold the story that incoming President-Elect Donald Trump is “pro-life.” I suspect most of us failed to see this coming. Yet the message carried far more power and influence than we could have imagined. It came hard and fast in a variety of packages.

“Pro-life” television commercials ran continuously. A giant Right-to-Life voting pamphlet went to many Catholic homes. Its list of pro-life candidates put Donald Trump at the top. Even Catholic Bishop Paul Bradley of the Diocese of Kalamazoo got in on it. He slipped a letter into church bulletins across the region. It said that “not all goods are equally good and not all evils are equally evil.” The two issues that are most relevant and that require the most attention, he stated, are abortion and gay marriage. No others were deemed important by the bishop. We must, we were told, vote for the pro-life candidacy of Donald Trump.

I know that many, including Catholics and others, especially the Christian right, chose Donald Trump for that very reason.

Much of the full pro-life message of Laudato Sí was lost on many voters and on many of my fellow Catholics.

I felt like I had failed. I thought we had made progress. I thought we had time. I thought things had begun to shift. I thought Catholics had embraced Pope Francis’ words in his powerful and poignant encyclical Laudato Sí. I had grown complacent in my confidence.

Climate action is pro-life, working for the lives of these kids and for their eventual grandchildren.

Last fall I worked for the Global Catholic Climate Movement helping to mobilize Catholics to take action on climate change. I spent hours working for the Climate Reality Project on a presentation that incorporated the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Sí with Catholic social teachings and slides of catastrophic impacts of climate change. Yet, even though I believed my presentation could make a difference, I hadn’t reached out to any churches to share it with them.

I thought people were responding to the work of organizations like GCCM, the Catholic Climate Covenant and Green Faith in answer to Pope Francis’ call to “answer the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” I thought Catholics and people in other faith communities would recognize that there is nothing “pro-life” about Donald Trump and that tackling climate change was imperative.

I was wrong, deluded.

The result of environmentalism’s failure to reclaim its pro-life narrative is staring us in the face.

When Mr. Trump told reporters at the New York Times that he was keeping an open mind, I grew hopeful. So hopeful that I started a letter writing campaign to ask him to become a climate hero and take on climate change. But then I watched as he rolled out climate change denier after denier, each one worse than the last. Taken all together, he has assembled a nightmare cabinet of climate deniers. Here are a few of the worst.

Reclaiming environmentalism’s pro-life narrative

Global Catholic Climate March. Fighting climate change is an expression of the ultimate pro-life movementQuezon, Phillipines.

Global Catholic Climate March demonstrators, Quezon, Philippines.

Last year, after helping to organize climate marches in countries across the world, I took a break and waited to see if a Paris Climate Agreement could be reached. Throughout the COP21, I found myself struggling with bad dreams that seemed powerful and full of messages. One of the strongest was that we cannot merely demonize the fossil fuel industry. We must act – in every way imaginable.

We must educate ourselves and others on the best and swiftest ways to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprint.

Most importantly, we must get others to understand the existential threat that is climate change. We must get them to understand that it is a profoundly pro-life issue, the most definitively pro-life issue of all, because it pertains to the very existence of life on this planet.

Steps I am taking to reclaim climate action’s pro-life narrative:

Mary asked Bishop Bradley, “What will our beautiful, beloved babies be up against?”

I wrote back to Bishop Bradley in response to his letter. Here is part of what I told him:

We never talk about whose babies we are saving. We are certainly not saving Syrian babies born of climate refugees. And, we don’t discuss what we are saving all these babies for (or any consideration of their dignity, well-being, or quality of life) considering how seriously impacted their future will be with runaway climate change on the horizon. We never ask if we are saving these babies to die in a world plagued with devastating droughts and a lack of clean water. We don’t mention how we might be forcing them to live with regular and frequent catastrophic storms, hurricanes and wildfires. Will they be able to feed themselves in an Earth that is polluted and dead? What will our beautiful, beloved babies be up against? Shouldn’t that be our concern?

It is our concern.

This past week as the cabinet selections rolled out, I reworked my climate presentation to make sure its emphasis is clear – climate action is pro-life.

I called my Congressmen and women to ask them to disallow confirmation of the cabinet selectees.

I wrote electors and asked them not to vote for Trump (to no avail).

I read every political article and shared them all – especially the ones that spoke of Trump’s, Tillerson’s, Pruitt’s, Putin’s and Perry’s anti-environmental intentions.

I reached out to friends supporting the efforts at Standing Rock.

I stuffed my fear down and reached out to conservative Catholic family members and asked them if I could share information on climate change.

I applied to work for the Global Catholic Climate Movement again.

I wrote to friends working with the Citizens Climate Lobby, who are interested in outreach to Catholics.

I shared a petition drafted by the Catholic Climate Covenant urging the President-Elect to take action on climate change. (It is the same petition that was signed by over 900,000 people from around the world and presented to world leaders in Paris.)

Unfortunately, those are all small gestures. There is so much real work to be done.

What might happen when we who love the Earth reclaim environmentalism’s pro-life narrative?

The only positive thing that may come out of a Trump presidency is that it is awakening a sleeping giant. It is truly forcing us to be the ones that we have been waiting for – it is forcing us to stop being complacent and to start acting with intention and integrity. We have a long way to go and a lot of people to educate. We have letters and blog posts to write, marches to organize, institutions to pressure to divest, pipelines to stop and our own carbon footprint to reevaluate.

Some people have suggested that Trump is “God’s” president. God, they insist, wanted Trump as president. Yet no concept of God sees God as anti-life. Anti-life is the antithesis of God. We must make it clear that not taking action on climate change is anti-life. We must work together to bring about an Economy in Service to Life, as will be discussed at a conference in Denver in May.

A Trump presidency may force us to deeply express how much we love life and each other and to work together as a “we” in new ways, reaching further out and cultivating new collaborations across communities. 

A Trump presidency will force us to find limitless courage and conviction. It will require us to stop every measure, every cabinet pick that Trump puts forward by relentless calls to our legislators and marches in the streets if we have to do so.

It will require us to step up and take on climate change ourselves without waiting for a white knight holding a giant banner.

It will make us take back and rewrite the narrative about what it truly means to be pro-life as we express simply and clearly our love and devotion for all life on this planet, including babies and toads.


  1. Brilliant, Mary! When you think about it, it just seems like common sense. Yes, of course, a pro-life stance must include standing against climate change and its threat to abort future generations. You should probably expect some push-back, though. Sometimes common sense looks controversial at first glance. (See Paine, Thomas.)

  2. Thanks for that beautifully written article Mary. As we prepare for Christ’s coming anew again tbis Christmas may each of us commit ourselves as you obviously have to a renewed, deeper understanding of what Christ is asking of us as we try to gain greater respect for our movement as together we try to implement the changes needed for the good of God’s great gift of creation. If anyone is interested I made up some bumper stickers that say “Laudato Sí IS Pro-Life” and I will be happy to send some to you.
    Deacon Tom Molineaux

    • Thank you for your kinds words. I would be very interested in some of your bumper stickers. Please let me know how to reach out to your to share addresses, etc.

  3. In order to be truly pro-life and reflect the beautiful “seamless garment” of peace of which Cardindal Bernardin spoke, we must reject violence in all its forms. This means veganism as a minimum, the moral baseline. Too many progressives are ignoring this important issue. The most powerful thing we can do as individuals for animals, for human health and for the planet is to go vegan.

    Aside from the fact that the animal industry is the single greatest source of greenhouse gasses, species extinction, water depletion, deforestation, global poverty and ocean “dead” zones, there is absolutely no justification for inflicting suffering and death upon our fellow sentient beings for reasons no more compelling than palate pleasure, convenience or so-called “tradition.”

    As Pope Francis tweeted on the day the Laudato Sí encyclical was published, “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

    Thus it makes absolutely no sense for self-avowed progressives, including those who consider themselves environmentalists, feminists and/or pacifists, to teach and preach about equality, fairness, non-violence and justice while continuing to engage in animal exploitation. Indeed, such hypocrisy invariably renders such teaching and preaching hollow and quite meaningless.

    • Thank you for your comment. I work with my sister to run an organic farm and strive to show a reverence through our work for all life, especially that which we cannot see. We are deeply committed to carbon farming and to that end collect food waste from local schools and coffee shops, including McDonald’s and compost it on our farm. It is just a small piece of what we could do, just a drop in the bucket. I hope to do more education on this topic – of reducing food waste.

      About your suggestion, I am mostly vegetarian and really like the idea of going meatless to lessen one’s carbon footprint. I can’t say that I am vegan, though and have not tried. We have our own pasture raised chickens and I really like their eggs.

      You bring up a good point, though, that we must be cognizant of how our choices, however small, impact the larger world. This is something that we should strive to do. It is too easy to be careless, while deep caring is so needed.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  4. This is excellent, Mary, and I agree with you a hundred percent. I am highly disturbed by the dismal leadership of our American Catholic bishops in the wake of Laudato Sí. There are some exceptions, but on the whole they cannot read the signs of the times, and therefore have abdicated their roles as shepherds. In fact, their blindness risks leading all the “sheep” to slaughter. The Holy Spirit goes where it is welcome, and it seems to be fleeing many American Catholic congregations, which have become more “American” and “culture war conservative” than Catholic. Gone is the Gospel. We MUST take back that term “pro-life” from its narrow use, which is a mockery.

    • Thank you for your comment. I, too, think that the U.S. Catholic Church needs to broaden its definition of pro-life. Someone else suggested taking on the mantle of “whole life.” The most troubling thing to many Catholics is how partisan the church has become. Some people say that it has always been a tool of the government and would not be as big as it is without Constantine picking up its banner so many many years ago.

      Yet, we recovered as a faith, as a church, from all the sexual abuse scandals, by recognizing that our beliefs are outside of the behemoth political structure and all its failings. I think that is what keeps us Catholic, although I cannot say that for everyone. :'(

      Thanks again for writing.

  5. This is a great essay, Mary
    “reached out to conservative Catholic family members” A commendable and powerful strategy! Of course it includes listening, and the necessity of political compromise which so many find distasteful. Trying to appropriate the term Pro-Life, while maintaining a pro-abortion policy position, would be seen as guileful, and in defiance of Paragraph 120 of Laudato Si. I think the term Whole life, as used by groups such as F.A.N. (Franciscan Action Network,) accompanied by less strident, more mainstream positions (those which support women’s privacy and authority over medical decisions but also discourage and limit abortion) would be the best banner and strategy to energize a Laudato Si movement, where strong Christian beliefs become an animating force to save the earth. I believe it’s possible, but progressive leaders must begin to understand that their current strategy of trying to neutralize and dismiss pro-life Christians (over 30% of their own party) has hit a wall.

    • Thank you for your comment. It is a very difficult conversation, one that has troubled me for a long time. The platforms and policies of both political parties are cringe worthy. I struggle with both in turn – one because it doesn’t recognize that we need to address the interconnectiveness of life and the other that takes such a strident approach pushing the pro-choice, easy access to abortion message.

      I worked for WIC as a certifier for many years, a job that required me to find resources for struggling care givers, the bulk of which were young mothers. So many would come into our office in tears, worried about how to adequately care for the child that they had just discovered they were carrying. In many cases, the father was not in their life. In some he was pushing the young woman to abort the baby. My job was to comfort these women while connecting them to all the resources available. In one case, I went outside of my role and sought help from a local Catholic Church, because the young woman before me was close to suicide and/or abortion. She was estranged from her family, from her church and had experienced severe postpartum depression in the past. I knew that something more urgent needed to be done, besides the standard handing her a list of resources to contact.

      Fortunately, the church came through for me and for her. There was a volunteer there who had experienced the same postpartum depressions and family estrangement. She took the young woman under her wing and essentially saved both her life and that of the baby (and from what I understand her own by strengthening her sense of value and worth).

      The policies of the far right don’t make this work easy, though, by cutting resources to struggling families. For instance, eliminating/repealing the Affordable Care Act will cause much suffering. Not addressing climate change is already impacting lives. We will see more and more lives lost as a result of inaction.

      It is difficult for Catholics, as it is for so many people, to live in such a politically divided world. That is why Laudato Si spoke to me, why it speaks to so many of us. It takes on the difficult, but important task of recognizing the intrinsic value in all of life. It speaks to the need to broaden our connection of life.

      Thank you again for writing.

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