Catholics react to U.N. climate change report

Rising sea levels, extreme heat waves, wildfires, coastal flooding and food shortages are just a few of the possible devastating effects from climate change, a United Nations panel said in a March 24 report.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attributes human activity, particularly carbon dioxide emissions, for what it says is a grave crisis facing the planet, which is about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer than what it was in 1950. The report says 2013 was the sixth-warmest year on record, and that 13 of the 14 warmest years have occurred in the 21st century.

The U.N. report calls upon national governments, especially those in the developed world, to curb fossil fuel emissions and implement measures to minimize some of the unavoidable effects related to a warmer planet.

“What changes with this U.N. report is the urgency with which we should act,” said Dominican Father Albino Barrera, a Providence College moral theology professor who has written on economics and globalization. “It will require prudential judgment on our part,” Father Barrera told Our Sunday Visitor.

Questions abound

The overwhelming international scientific consensus is that climate change, also known as global warming, is a real phenomenon caused by humans. In May 2011, a Pontifical Academy of Sciences working group issued a report, very similar to the recent U.N. findings, that called upon nations to recognize the “serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.”

“At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both ‘the human environment’ and the natural environment. It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.”

— From “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2001 statement on global warming.

However, climate change remains a politically charged issue, in large part because of the negative economic effects that developed countries like the United States would experience if they were to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Also, there are some scientists and others who are skeptical that climate change is a real problem. The Global Warming Petition Project says more than 31,000 American scientists — more than 9,000 with Ph.D.s — have signed its online petition to challenge the theory that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases cause global warming.

“Whatever consensus (scientists) claim to have, I think is manufactured,” said Mark W. Hendrickson, an adjunct faculty member, economist and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “There is so much pretense involved. People are saying that they know the future. But there are so many variables, and climatologists don’t know how they all fit together.

The U.N. experts concede some positive effects. Fewer people might die from cold weather, and areas in higher latitudes might become more fertile. But the negative effects, the report says, outweigh the positive changes. For example, a warmer climate could lead to lower crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa and other large swaths of the planet. Fish and other aquatic life may also flee huge segments of the ocean as water temperatures rise.

Catholic concerns

Of particular concern to the Catholic community is the real possibility that the poor, especially people living in poverty-stricken developing countries, will experience the worst effects of global warming, such as devastated crop yields, famine, higher food prices, environmental degradation and diminished fresh water supplies.

“As in most things, the poor have the least responsibility for destroying our environment, and they are the ones who will be most effected by the destruction of our environment,” said Patrick Carolan, the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, which is one of a dozen national Catholic organizations that form the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.

In April 2009, those organizations — which include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services — launched the Catholic Climate Covenant to stress the Catholic social teaching principle of caring for creation.

“In looking at our response to climate change, we can look to our rich Catholic teaching which calls upon us to care for God’s creation,” Cecilia Calvo, the environmental justice program coordinator for the USCCB, told OSV. “I think it’s very clear from the (U.N.) working group report that the impacts of climate change are going to be very serious.”

‘God’s gift’

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in “Caritas in Veritate,” wrote, “The protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

“Catholics believe that grace builds on nature and that human actions matter. In that sense, whatever we can and should do to help in limiting or lessening global warming is nothing less than a moral imperative,” said Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, the Msgr. Walter J. Schmitz, S. S. Professor of Liturgical Studies at The Catholic University of America. “The doomsday scenarios may well occur because humans do not act.”

Hendrickson, who described himself as a climate change agnostic, said he has been studying the issue for the last 20 years and added that the data he has seen shows global temperatures have not increased in 17 years. He cites the Archimedes Principle to argue that sea levels will not rise from the polar ice caps melting. He said the data also shows that Antarctica has seen a net gain in ice mass and that it has not been proven that carbon dioxide leads to global warming.

“People keep cherry-picking data to support their positions,” Hendrickson said. “The world is incredibly complex. It’s not in the capacity of the human race to regulate the climate of the earth.”

Several mainstream scientific organizations, including NASA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, say climate change is already happening, with negative consequences for human health, natural ecosystems and agriculture.

“The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it, we have a responsibility to the poor, to future generations and toward humanity as well,” Calvo said. “That really sums up the call for our response to climate change.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.