Recent news reports state that Pope Francis will very soon release an encyclical that calls on Roman Catholics to work to reduce human-induced climate change and its related, serious upheavals. It is somewhat akin to stepping into the middle of a firefight. The climate scientists who publish papers in peer-reviewed journals have come to a widespread agreement that recent human activity has released enough carbon into the atmosphere to provoke a radical warming trend. You would never know this, however, if you prefer to pay attention to GOP presidential hopefuls, who rely on press releases from wealthy oil and coal industry funded research organizations to dispute the scientific consensus.
Why would the Roman Catholic church step into such a messy debate? Wouldn't it be safer to stay on the sidelines? Well, Pope Francis has never been one to value safety over faithfulness, and he has been vigorously leading the church in following her Lord's footsteps--which as we know, led to a gruesome crucifixion about 2000 years ago.* Moreover, the Roman Catholic church has a longstanding commitment to promoting responsible stewardship of our environment on behalf of future generations. As the US Catholic Conference of Bishops explains:
Care for the earth is a duty of our Catholic faith. We all are called to be careful stewards of God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for vulnerable human beings now and in the future.
Okay, we can understand why human-induced climate change would be an important issue to Catholic faith--assuming that the almost-unanimous opinion of published climate scientists is correct. But has the Church leadership done its scientific research homework to lead the flock on this controversial issue?
Let me answer the question with a question: did you know that the Vatican sponsors a Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help it gain a sound understanding of scientific issues? Before today, I didn't.** Just three years ago, the Academy commissioned a working group of glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers, and lawyers to study the issue of glacier melt and its underlying causes. This esteemed group came to the following conclusion:
In response to the argument that 'since the Earth has experienced alternating cold periods (ice ages or glacials) and warm periods (inter-glacials) during the past, today’s climate and ice cover changes are entirely natural events', we state:
The primary triggers for ice ages and inter-glacials are well understood to be changes in the astronomical parameters related to the motion of our planet within the solar system and natural feedback processes in the climate system. The time scales between these triggers are in the range of 10,000 years or longer. By contrast, the observed human-induced changes in carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and soot concentrations are taking place on 10-100 year timescales –at least a hundred times as fast. It is particularly worrying that this release of global warming agents is occurring during an interglacial period when the Earth was already at a natural temperature maximum.
Moreover, the Vatican working group states that this human-induced climate change is not just melting glaciers:
Human-caused changes in the composition of the air and air quality result in more than 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year and threaten water and food security —especially among those “bottom 3 billion” people who are too poor to avail of the protections made possible by fossil fuel use and industrialization.
Now it is easier to understand why Pope Francis is planning to use his influence on the climate change issue: he is speaking up for the millions of poor who are already dying. While I can scarcely claim to know the mind of His Holiness, I suspect his encyclical will recommend action similar to the three recommendations of the Vatican working group:
I. Reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay, using all means possible to meet ambitious international global warming targets and ensure the long-term stability of the climate system. All nations must focus on a rapid transition to renewable energy sources and other strategies to reduce CO2 emissions. Nations should also avoid removal of carbon sinks by stopping deforestation, and should strengthen carbon sinks by reforestation of degraded lands. They also need to develop and deploy technologies that draw down excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These actions must be accomplished within a few decades.
II. Reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants (dark soot, methane, lower atmosphere ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons) by as much as 50%, to slow down climate change during this century while preventing millions of premature deaths from respiratory disease and millions of tons of crop damages every year.
III. Prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate. In particular, we call for a global capacity-building initiative to assess the natural and social impacts of climate change in mountain systems and related watersheds.
How Will the Faithful Respond?
The Roman Catholic faithful will be tested severely when the encyclical is released. Even today, Catholics might subscribe to the Fox News and GOP stance on climate change because they simply aren't aware of the Church's stance on the issue. Have you seen the conclusions of the Vatican's scientific commission reported before you read this post? Climate change is an issue I follow, but I never saw any such news. But when the Pope releases an encyclical, this incipient conflict between the Church's leadership on the one side and a well-moneyed assemblage of powerful politicians and wealthy capitalists on the other will no longer be in the shadows. Which side will the faithful choose?
Even though I have left the Roman Catholic church in favor of evangelical Protestantism, I still have tremendous respect for its courageous leadership on issues of social justice. Consequently, I will not be a sideline observer as the drama unfolds. I will do whatever I can to stand with my brothers and sisters in the catholic faith*** in favor of the poor who are dying because of unanticipated consequences of our carbon-based modern economy. Change to a sustainable economic market economy won't be easy...but since when does the ease of the task dictate the terms of our service to our Lord, who suffered a cruel death for the sake of His flock?
* And a subsequent resurrection! Pope Francis, by the way, is not by a long shot the only Roman Catholic leader with this vision of preferring faithful service to safety and comfort. He just happens to be communicating the vision with particular clarity and visibility of late.
** How many denominations or Christian organizations have such a commitment to scientific inquiry as to maintain a staff of world-class scientific talent? I am impressed with the Roman Catholic church's approach.
*** In Latin, "catholic" means universal, and I consider evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Orthodox adherents, etc., to be members of the universal church.