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Friday, May 6, 2011

A Pontifical report on climate change

This morning at work, I delighted in emailing colleagues with the day’s big news on climate change. In doing so, I was allowed to write the word “Pontifical” in my official government capacity. That email not only helped share breaking news on climate change research, it also demonstrated the faith-reason link within Catholic thought and practice.

The big news is, of course, the publishing of "Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene," a report by leading climate researchers and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. You can read the full report here, but these few snippets will help you understand its focus:

Warming of the Earth is unequivocal. Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperature since the mid-20th century is ‘very likely’—defined as more than 90% likely—to be the result of the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. This warming is occurring in spite of masking by cooling aerosol particles—many of which are co-emitted by CO2-producing processes.

The widespread loss of ice and snow in the world’s mountain glaciers is some of the clearest evidence we have for global changes in the climate system. The present losses of mountain glaciers cause more than 1 mm per year of sea level rise, or about one-third of the observed rate. In the most recent part of the Anthropocene, much of the reduction of glacier mass and length in tropical, temperate, and polar regions results from the observed increases in greenhouse gases and the increases in sunlight-absorbing particles such as soot, from inefficient combustion processes, and dust, from land cover change.

Because of the time lag between mitigation action and climate response, vulnerable ecosystems and populations will face significant climate impacts and possibly unacceptable risks even with ultimately successful mitigation. Therefore, in addition to mitigation, adaptation must also start now and be pursued aggressively.

We cannot adapt to changes we cannot understand. Adaptation starts with assessment. An international initiative to observe and model mountain systems and their watersheds with high spatial resolution, realistic topography, and processes appropriate to high altitudes is a prerequisite to strengthening regional and local capacities to assess the natural and social impacts of climate change.

Humanity has created the Anthropocene era and must live with it. This requires a new awareness of the risks human actions are having on the Earth and its systems, including the mountain glaciers discussed here. It imposes a new duty to reduce these risks. Failure to mitigate climate change will violate our duty to the vulnerable of the Earth, including those dependent on the water supply of mountain glaciers, and those facing rising sea level and stronger storm surges. Our duty includes the duty to help vulnerable communities adapt to changes that cannot be mitigated. All nations must ensure that their actions are strong enough and prompt enough to address the increasing impacts and growing risk of climate change and to avoid catastrophic irreversible consequences.

Throughout today’s news cycle, the report garnered increased attention. The news was even more impressive when noting that His Holiness Benedict XVI would be presented a copy.

Now, this is all a big deal on a number of fronts, and I’m sure there will be other posts on this story in my pages, as well as a column or two. But for now, this isn’t just about science. It’s also about how this report will force people within and outside of the Church to face their demons and misconceptions.

For those who see the Church as irrelevant and backwards—or as a religious body that has lost its moral authority—this major piece of science, and the attention it's garnered, demonstrates otherwise.

For those who see climate change as somehow antithetical to the Christian faith—or who think it’s all a hoax—the report also demonstrates otherwise.

And certainly for those who don't get the Church-science link, this news may prompt them to learn something about it.

Either way, over the next few days watch for stories that misinterpret this report as a de fide proclamation about a scientific matter, when in fact it is not. The Church does not make dogmatic pronouncements on particular scientific issues. The report is one generated by an organ of the Church by members who are not necessarily in the Church. While this remains a worthy document, it is not one that every Catholic must agree to. (Although, it will be interesting to see what His Holiness has to say.)

Similarly, watch for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ to respond with huffing-and-puffing and pouting about how this report "proves" that the Church has been infiltrated by pagans and leftists. You’ll also find a few Catholic commentators shrug off the report, while others use it as a weapon to prove their own eco-agendas. Sadly, truth and charity may sometimes be victims as the drama unfolds because of this report. But then, welcome to the human race.

For now, we must offer our profound thanks to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and to its head, Chancellor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo. They have done a great service for the work of the Church, as well as for that of research. In particular, they have given shelter to scientists who normally are not allowed to discuss the moral and religious aspects of their work. But because this was the work of the Vatican—of a religion that naturally blends faith and reason for the common good—climate change was able to take on a human face and so engage more fully our shared cultural awareness. Indeed, as quoted in the New York Time/Climate Wire piece by Lauren Morello, researcher Veerabhadran Ramanathan had this to say:

"I have never participated in any report in 30 years where the word 'God' is mentioned . . . I think the Vatican brings that moral authority."

There will be much more to come in the realm of science and the media’s reaction. I pray that what will prevail is the very title of our Holy Father’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad to read this article. I always wondered why the Catholic Church did not say anything about the devastation we are causing in our planet including animals. We are destroying God’s Creation and it’s all about money!, I am sure God is not happy to see what we are doing!. I think the Catholic Church should be more open about this serious matter. My name is Ligia and my e-mail is


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