By Gerald Korson
According to many environmentalists and scientists, the earth is in the midst of a rapid warming trend, its average temperature having climbed twice as rapidly in the past 50 years as it had in the previous century. An increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they say, contributes to this development, which has already caused a rise in sea level, a decrease in snowfall, melting of glaciers, and an Arctic region less frigid than before.
These observations, taken from a fact sheet produced last fall by the United Nations, form the basis for what generally is called "climate change" or "global warming." This trend, many say, will have dire consequences for life on earth should it continue unmitigated by human effort. Former vice president Al Gore had made a second career crisscrossing the country spreading the news of this "inconvenient truth," which has become the presumptive model for the state of the earth today.
Here is a concise summary of how climate change is said to affect our world:
The earth's climate is regulated by a thin "blanket" of naturally occurring greenhouse gases that envelops the earth in the troposphere. When energy from the sun reaches the cooler surface of the earth, that energy is deflected back toward space. Natural greenhouse gases prevent some of this thermal radiation from leaving the atmosphere, thus warming the earth within a comfortable temperature range.
Fossil fuels -- coal, oil, natural gas and gasoline -- also release "greenhouse gases" into the troposphere, where they mix with the naturally occurring gases. Because this thickens the "blanket," more thermal radiation is retained in the earth's atmosphere, causing global temperatures to increase.
Concomitant long-term effects may vary from continent to continent, but generally temperature and weather patterns are expected to tend toward extremes -- more devastating droughts, deadlier heat waves, more powerful storms and shrinking supplies of fresh water due to adverse changes in rainfall and evaporation.
Entire species could be wiped out unless they migrate successfully in search of a more favorable climate. The human cost could be unfathomable, with widespread famine, natural disasters and armed conflict over diminishing natural resources potentially exacting a heavy toll.
Although few scientists deny the empirical evidence of global warming, not all have signed off on the gloomy scenario above. Fewer still so readily lay the blame at the feet of humanity.
"Global climate changes all the time due to natural causes, and the human impact still remains impossible to distinguish from this natural 'noise,'" said 60 Canadian scientists in a 2006 petition to their prime minister asking for open consultations on global warming. "We need to continue intensive research into the real causes of climate change and help our most vulnerable citizens adapt to whatever nature throws at us next."
When the Heartland Institute's 2008 International Conference on Climate Change met last month in New York, some 500 scientists, economists and public-policy experts weighed in with their dissent from the environmental "alarmists." The media barely noticed their existence, however, save for a snide reference or two to "the flat-earth society."
Many of those who do not buy into the doomsayers' perspective point to evidence that periodic climate change is part of a natural cycle influenced by factors such as solar radiation, sunspots, volcanic activity and variations in the earth's orbit and rotation. Such cycles would explain the ice ages of antiquity and the gradual cooling period the earth experienced between the early 1940s and the late 1970s.
Are the observable effects of climate change being exacerbated significantly by human activity and, if so, do they require prompt and decisive measures to reduce the environmental damage? Or is climate change nothing more than the whims of a fickle Mother Nature that lead environmental "alarmists" to overreact and cry "wolf"?
Pope Benedict XVI has won praise for his repeated references to protecting the earth and its resources, but it would be premature for either side in the present climate-change debate to claim him for their camp. His message for the 2008 World Day of Peace (Jan. 1) spells out his perspective:
"We need to care for the environment: It has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion," the pope said in his message.
Rather than valuing animals and nature more than humanity, respect for the environment means "not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit toward nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves," he said.
In so doing, we must remain mindful of the poor, "who are excluded in many cases from the goods of creation destined for all," the pope said.
"Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow," he said. Experts must work and dialogue prudently, "uninhibited by ideological pressures to draw hasty conclusions," in order to agree upon "a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances."
Rather than embrace a particular ecological ideology, Pope Benedict's intent here is to emphasize the Catholic moral and social principles of stewardship of the earth and the universal destination of goods. These are imperatives that require attention in every age, regardless of whether we face an imminent environmental crisis or not.
The pope does not concern himself about which perspective has the evidence on its side -- whether climate change will create havoc or merely correct itself in time as part of a poorly understood cycle of nature. Surely crisis-mongers have been wrong before, but so have naysayers. What if there really is a wolf this time? It matters little. The principles of stewardship apply just the same.
As Pope Benedict wisely suggests, let the dialogue continue.
Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God's prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.
-- Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus encyclical, No. 37
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.
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