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This past Tuesday, June 18, marked the fourth anniversary of the release of Pope Francis’s groundbreaking encyclical on care for Creation, Laudato Si’. From the very beginning of his papacy, caring for our common home has been at the center of his message and vision for the Church. In his inaugural Mass, Francis implored us all to “be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

This vision continues to unfold in the life of the Church, despite being met with resistance in some quarters. The second part of the just-released Instrumentum Laboris (IL), or working document, for the upcoming Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, focuses on integral ecology, emphasizing the importance of protecting and preserving nature. Deforestation and other human acts of destruction have caused great damage to the ecosystem and biodiversity in the region, affecting not only animal and plant life, but the native people and their communities, especially those who live in poverty.

While some Catholics, especially in the United States, are skeptical about the impact of human activity on the climate, the Catholic Church’s approach for centuries is to accept the findings and discoveries of the professional scientific community. Pope Francis’s approach, much like his predecessors St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is to give a Christian response to the established scientific understanding of how certain types of human activity are harming our planet.  

Recently, in an address to a gathering of world leaders in finance, Francis expounded on many of the effects of the climate crisis that we are facing, and the urgency to act:

“The effects of global inaction are startling. About two weeks ago, several scientific research centres recorded the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – one of the key global causes of global warming linked to human activity – as having reached 415 parts per million, the highest level ever recorded. Around the world, we are seeing heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods and other extreme meteorological events, rising sea levels, the emergence of diseases and further problems that are only a dire premonition of things much worse to come, unless we act and act urgently.

During your meeting today, you heard from leading climatologists and experts. Their message was clear and insistent. We need to act decisively to put an end to all emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century at the very latest, and to do even more than that. Carbon dioxide concentrations have to decline significantly to ensure the safety of our common home. You also heard that this can be accomplished at low cost by employing clean energy and improving energy efficiency.”

Unfortunately, some Catholics (very few of whom are climate scientists or have studied the data) reject the nearly-unanimous consensus that human activity has an effect on the Earth’s climate. This anti-scientific tendency exists in even more extreme forms among Catholics who embrace young-Earth creationism, geocentrism, and even flat-Earth theory.

We must remember that the Catholic Church is not anti-science. It’s simply unreasonable to believe that more than 97% of climate scientists – people who have dedicated their lives to the scientific study of the climate – are advancing research that has been deliberately skewed for ideological reasons. Naturally, the Catholic Church accepts the conclusions of the experts in the field.

This is very important for a number of reasons.  

First, care for the environment is a moral issue of great significance and urgency. Pope Francis recognizes this and adds his authoritative voice to those of other advocates and world leaders that the climate crisis is the result of our behavior; behavior that we must change in order to avert a serious disaster.

Secondly, if the Catholic Church ignored or denied the significance of the climate crisis, the dialogue about how to address the issue would go on without a Catholic voice. The global community has long-recognized the threat of climate change, and many of the proposed solutions directly contradict Catholic moral doctrine. Laudato Si’, coming from a perspective rooted in the Catholic faith, has been a significant corrective to many of these proposals.  

For example, in paragraph 50 of the encyclical, Pope Francis addresses the suggestion that population control is the solution to our environmental problems. He disagrees with this idea, describing it as “refusing to face the issues”:

“50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’ Yet ‘while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.’ To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and ‘whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.’”

Catholics who deny the established science and refuse to acknowledge the problem disqualify themselves from having a place in the discussion. Many of them tend to associate the notion of climate change with population control and the widespread distribution of contraception, or other ideas contrary to Catholic teaching. They might see the desire to address climate change as an issue of the “left,” and in doing so, they opt out of this serious global conversation.

This is unfortunate. In my work with Catholic groups focused on issues related to the environment and climate, I have found that the perspectives of those of us who approach these questions with a faith-based context are welcomed and respected by the wider community of environmental advocates. There is room for us at the table, but it is up to us to take our place.

In the four years since the release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has become a leader in the global response to climate change and care for creation. It is essential that the wider Catholic community follows his lead.

 

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12 Responses

  1. David Armitage says:

    Oh I just have to comment on this! I love Pope Francis and believe he will eventually be seen as one of the truly great Popes. But he does make mistakes. His humility does not try to hide them when he eventually recognizes them.

    Clearly, a Christian must not ignore harm to the environment but the whole ‘climate change’ topic has become toxic. Yes, we need to listen to the scientists on this matter but they are far less in agreement than is claimed. There is a very significant number of scientists who reject much of the narrative we read about in the media. What is overlooked is how deeply politics have ‘infected’ the scientific approach on this topic. A very large percentage of scientists who pursue the media narrative are funded in one way or another by government.

    Pope Francis, God bless him, is not going to be aware of these problems so I totally understand his position but, in time, I believe the truth will emerge about how climate science is losing touch with ‘the scientific method’.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      My point is that the “topic” might be infected, which is why Christian responses are necessary. And no – the number of scientists in the field who disagree with the consensus is not significant.

      • Mike Lewis says:

        But more to the point, it would be unwise for the pope to disregard the prevailing scientific understanding of the issue. There is simply no reasonable motivation for him to do so.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        Even if the whole climate change debate was firmly resolved, it would do nothing to bring people closer to Christ, who is the real solution to human abuse of nature. He is the one who pacifies and moderates human behavior by bringing us peace and strength.

  2. Faith says:

    Hear hear. We can’t afford to take a dismissive stance on this issue, even if it isn’t taken from Pres. Trump’s playbook. It is saddening to see so many Catholics indulge in conspiracy theories when the evidence is very clear. Thank you Pope Francis for being a consistent and clear voice!

  3. Pete Vickery says:

    I think we can agree that respect for the environment and care for the planet is of great importance whether or not we believe that carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is causing the planet to heat up. I have a degree in chemistry just like Pope Francis does yet I disagree with him on the role of CO2. I hope we remember how Copernicus overturned the prevailing scientific consensus of geocentrism (Ptolemaic model) decades before Galileo discovered the same thing. The Church, including the Pope, can be wrong on scientific questions. I have the utmost respect for Pope Francis and believe he is trusting the advice he is being given. This doesn’t mean I’m for pollution or against recycling or anything else of that nature. I think deforestation is a catastrophic problem. I hate it that we pollute the oceans with garbage and plastics. I am definitely not a Republican. I remain a skeptic of those who demand we accept that CO2 induced global warming is a settled issue. It isn’t. The reasons are many but my time is short. If you want I can give you some of my reasons but not tonight. I love this website and all that it stands for. I hope we can agree to disagree on this one.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Pete, I don’t think my post necessarily rejects your position. The scientific consensus on climate change might be proven wrong someday. Who knows? As you point out, it has certainly happened in the past.

      But as a non-scientist myself, I believe the most pragmatic approach to science is to accept the findings and conclusions of the experts in their given field. And I think Francis is wise to rely on experts on the matter.

      As a scientist, you might have more insight into the issue, which might lead you to a different conclusion for well-founded reasons.

      What’s apparent to me, however, is that most of the climate change denialism in the US is rooted in ideology and politics. That’s not a rational approach to a question that’s unquestionably in the realm of science.

  4. carn says:

    This approach:

    “Catholics who deny the established science and refuse to acknowledge the problem disqualify themselves from having a place in the discussion.”

    has in some circumstances the risk of being wrong, even deadly wrong.

    The reason is, that this approach fails to consider, WHY science is actually capable to often give so precise and reliable theories and results.

    And this is important, cause sometimes some sciences or scientists DO NOT or CANNOT meet what makes science so reliable partially or completely. Then the produced theories/results are not very reliable, although they are at least educated guesses one should consider.

    Usually, scientists are aware of that and do not commit the error, that some statement of theirs is of the reliable type, when they are only offering educated guesses.

    But in some fields, e.g. sociology, economics, criminology and other sciences pertaining human behavior, this happens rather often.

    Then blindly trusting the scientists is an error.

    To specify, science is most reliable when it can study a matter via repeatable experiments; then science is at its best, creating the theories necessary for example for building a computer such as the one i use for typing. If science cannot study a matter with repeatable experiments or only partly, then science gets more and more less reliable.

    This makes it obvious that the aforementioned disciplines have problems to reach the same precision as for example electronics.

    You can build a thousand different electronic circuits and test them, when you are trying to determine whether some circuit is
    superior to another.

    But you cannot copy a country a thousand times and apply to each different tax laws, when you are trying to determine which effects some tax laws might have on economy.

    And with climate science a huge problem is that it has both things from more reliable fields and from less reliable fields; but many advocates do not care or are not aware and thereby present a combination of reliable scientific findings with educated guesses, but act as if all of it were reliable scientific findings.

    I am not talking about whether climate change is influenced by humans; that is of the reliable type; cause it basically is only about how CO2 and other gases effect the transmission/reflection of different radiation through a mainly nitrogen/oxygen gas; that is open to repeatable experiments and – the small but also quite useful brother thereof – repeated precise observations.

    But if one reads the text be Pope Francis one sees that there is more in it, than just the claim that CO2 influences climate, e.g.:

    “You also heard that this can be accomplished at low cost by employing clean energy and improving energy efficiency.”

    That is economics and various sub fields of physics, whether it can be accomplished at low costs. While the respective sub fields of physics are reliable (e.g. whether and how you can store energy), economics (the cost associated with making all these energy storage facilities reality is a problem of economics) is a field of science consisting mostly of educated guesses; accordingly – and this is no fault of Pope Francis – this statement about “low cost” is just an educated guess.

    That it is partly or totally false, is something one should keep in mind.

    And the most damaging thing for all efforts against climate change would be the following:

    Treat someone, who thinks that “low cost” is false and that instead the cost for example would be high (who the might reject some climate change policy proposals and argue for different policies) as if it were a flat-earther.

    It would not only be unfair/uncharitable against that person and a lie – it would increase doubt even about the reliable scientific findings.

    (And of course you can guess that easily: i consider the claim that decarbonization can be done at “low cost” to be wrong; if we do it, it will be high cost; the Pope for that sentence listened in my opinion to people offering only educated guesses but in such way, that there perceived as reliable scientific findings; or in other words, he received false information; and please no discussion “how can you be so arrogant …”; i just disagree with the Pope here about a claim about economic sciences)

    • carn says:

      One sees this issue by the way also from the site linked in the article:

      https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

      This site only claims that earth is warming and its due to humans.

      It does not anywhere claim that there is a scientific consensus, that its low cost to decarbonize till 2050.

      The site also ensures to clearly state, which parts of the information it presents are of the more reliable type, e.g.:

      https://climate.nasa.gov/solutions/adaptation-mitigation/
      “NASA is a world leader in climate studies and Earth science. While its role is not to set climate policy or prescribe particular responses or solutions to climate change, its purview does include providing the robust scientific data needed to understand climate change. NASA then makes this information available to the global community – the public, policy- and decision-makers and scientific and planning agencies around the world.”

      If everybody did it how NASA does it on its web page – not claiming scientific reliability for educated guesses – the whole climate debate would be more rational.

  5. Manuel Dauvin says:

    We can expect that something as complex as man’s interaction with the planet’s climate will be at this stage nearly impossible to measure or predict. However, man does not live his life within a “global” indeterminate climate. He lives in small spaces on the earth’s surface and these spaces are being undeniably, measurably and quickly destroyed or damaged by forces that require global address.
    The oil industry is no small player in this so the initiative to address “carbon” has entirely positive implications even if I’d prefer a focus on the real stuff. ..like garbage in the ocean, pesticide dependence. ..etc.
    Pope Francis is not wrong on climate change because the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. So the real test becomes, “what is the experience of the poor with regard to the effects that outside forces are having on THEIR CLIMATE?”

  6. M. says:

    What rarely comes up in these discussions is the role of eating too much meat. One of the major players in our problem, is that 1st world countries consume huge, enormous quantities of meat, and meeting the demand for meat, meat, and more meat is taxing our resources. If people would be willing to fast little bit by just eating more vegetable and less meat it would make a huge difference. Fasting from meat and eating more vegetables instead is good for us anyway, body, mind, and spirit. this is one way individuals can truly make a difference, but it is much easier to blame things beyond our actual control, and that require very little of us. How is it fair that we in the first world can eat meat three times a day while others in the world have to scrape for a teaspoon of porridge. Let us fast and abstain from meat and animal proteins as much as we are able, in solidarity with the poor and in reparation for our sins against the poor. This will help our planet more than many things can, if lots of people get on board with it.

  7. David Armitage says:

    The problem with climate change science is that it has become hopelessly politicised Some links have been posted above which broadly present the current ‘consensus’ as presented in the media.

    Please allow me to offer the following link which presents the situation in a balanced but very different way:
    https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/why-scientists-disagree-about-global-warming

    I suspect Pope Francis is only presented with information from the former sources and is told that those who disagree with that ‘consensus’ are extremists. The truth will gradually emerge but how much damage will take place before that happpens.

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