Cli­mate change and the Catholic church

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Pope Fran­cis is call­ing on the world to take ac­tion against global warm­ing, and many con­ser­va­tives in the United States are up in arms. The pope should stick to moral­ity, they say, and not ven­ture into science. But, as the cli­mate de­bate un­folds this year, most of hu­man­ity will find Fran­cis’s mes­sage com­pelling: we need both science and moral­ity to re­duce the risk to our planet.

The first point to note is that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans agree with Fran­cis’s call for cli­mate ac­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, their views are not rep­re­sented in the US Congress, which de­fends Big Coal and Big Oil, not the Amer­i­can peo­ple. The fos­sil-fuel in­dus­try spends heav­ily on lob­by­ing and the cam­paigns of con­gress­men such as Sen­a­tors Mitch McConnell and James In­hofe. The world’s cli­mate cri­sis has been ag­gra­vated by Amer­ica’s demo­cratic cri­sis.

In a sur­vey of Amer­i­cans con­ducted in Jan­uary 2015, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of re­spon­dents (78%) said that, “if noth­ing is done to re­duce global warm­ing,” the fu­ture con­se­quences for the US would be “some­what se­ri­ous” or “very se­ri­ous.” Roughly the same pro­por­tion (74%) said that if noth­ing is done to re­duce global warm­ing, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions would be hurt “a mod­er­ate amount,” “a lot,” or “a great deal.” Per­haps most tellingly, 66% said that they would be “more likely” to sup­port a can­di­date who says that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing and who calls for a shift to re­new­able en­ergy, while 12% would be “less likely” to sup­port such a can­di­date.

In March 2015, an­other sur­vey ex­am­ined the at­ti­tudes of US Chris­tians, who con­sti­tute 71% of Amer­i­cans. The re­sponses were re­ported for three groups: Catholics, nonE­van­gel­i­cal Protes­tants, and Evan­gel­i­cals. Th­ese groups’ at­ti­tudes mir­ror those of Amer­i­cans more gen­er­ally: 69% of Catholics and 62% of main­line Protes­tants re­sponded that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing, with a smaller ma­jor­ity of Evan­gel­i­cals (51%) agree­ing. Ma­jori­ties in each group also agreed that global warm­ing will harm the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, and that re­duc­ing global warm­ing would help the en­vi­ron­ment and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Which mi­nor­ity of Amer­i­cans, then, op­poses cli­mate ac­tion? There are three main groups. The first are freemar­ket con­ser­va­tives, who seem to fear gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion more than cli­mate change. Some have fol­lowed their ide­ol­ogy to the point of deny­ing wellestab­lished science: be­cause gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion is bad, they tell them­selves that the science sim­ply can­not be true.

The sec­ond group com­prises re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists. They deny cli­mate change be­cause they re­ject earth science en­tirely, be­liev­ing the world to be newly cre­ated, con­trary to the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence of physics, chem­istry, and ge­ol­ogy.

But it is the third group that is by far the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cally: oil and coal in­ter­ests, which con­trib­uted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to the 2014 cam­paign. David and Charles Koch, Amer­ica’s big­gest cam­paign fi­nanciers, are sim­ply oil­men out to mul­ti­ply their gar­gan­tuan wealth, de­spite the costs to the rest of hu­man­ity. Per­haps they are true cli­mate de­niers as well. Then again, as Up­ton Sin­clair fa­mously quipped, “It is dif­fi­cult to get a man to un­der­stand some­thing, when his salary de­pends on his not un­der­stand­ing it.”

Fran­cis’s right-wing crit­ics per­haps come from all three groups, but they are at least partly funded by the third. When the Pon­tif­i­cal Academies of Sciences and So­cial Sciences and some of the world’s top earth and so­cial sci­en­tists met at the Vat­i­can in April, the lib­er­tar­ian Heart­land In­sti­tute, sup­ported over the years by the Koch broth­ers, mounted a fruit­less protest out­side of St. Peter’s Square. The sci­en­tists at the Vat­i­can meet­ing took ex­tra care to em­pha­sise that cli­mate science and pol­icy re­flect fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of physics, chem­istry, ge­ol­ogy, as­tron­omy, en­gi­neer­ing, eco­nomics, and so­ci­ol­ogy, key parts of which have been well un­der­stood for more than 100 years.

Yet the pope’s right-wing crit­ics are as mis­taken in their the­ol­ogy as they are in their science. The claim that the pope should stick with moral­ity be­trays a ba­sic mis­un­der­stand­ing of Ro­man Catholi­cism. The Church cham­pi­ons the mar­riage of faith and rea­son. At least since the pub­li­ca­tion of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa The­o­log­ica (1265-74), nat­u­ral law and the Golden Rule have been viewed as the fun­da­men­tal pil­lars of the Church’s teach­ings.

Most peo­ple know that the Church op­posed Galileo’s ad­vo­cacy of Coper­ni­can he­lio­cen­trism, for which Pope John Paul II apol­o­gised in 1992. But many are un­aware of the Church’s sup­port for mod­ern science, in­clud­ing many im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to bi­ol­ogy, chem­istry, and physics by world-lead­ing Catholic cler­ics. In­deed, the found­ing of the Pon­tif­i­cal Academy of Sciences traces its ori­gins back more than 400 years, to the Academy of Lynxes (Ac­cademia dei Lin­cei), which in­ducted Galileo in 1611.

The Vat­i­can gath­er­ing in April in­cluded not only worldlead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists and No­bel lau­re­ates, but also se­nior rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Protes­tant, Hindu, Jewish, Bud­dhist, and Mus­lim faiths. Like Fran­cis, re­li­gious lead­ers of all the world’s ma­jor re­li­gions are urg­ing us to take wis­dom from faith and cli­mate science in or­der to ful­fill our moral re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to hu­man­ity and to the fu­ture of Earth. We should heed their call.

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