The National Catholic Review
What the church can do about global warming
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We are here in Panama,” said Naderev Sano, “to tell the world that climate change is a matter of life and death for the Philippines.” Mr. Sano, a member of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, was speaking at an October 2011 meeting in Panama City in preparation for the U.N. conference on climate change that convened in Durban, South Africa, the following month.

“Millions of Filipinos are already suffering, yet we are only seeing initial climate change impacts,” Mr. Sano said. “Progress must be made in the climate treaty negotiations.” An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is regularly battered by typhoons that many believe are growing in intensity because of climate change. A December storm, Typhoon Washi, left more than 1,200 dead and thousands homeless.

Although Catholics may not think of climate stabilization as a pro-life issue, it is increasingly clear that protecting the sanctity of life entails not only working to end abortion and the death penalty but also acting to conserve the earth’s climate and biosphere. The world’s most prestigious scientific bodies are in agreement that global warming is caused primarily by human beings and that its effects on our environment and economy will be far-reaching. In the short term, climate change will bring an increase in extreme weather events that threaten human populations and agricultural production. In the long term, it may be that the very viability of human civilization is at stake.

The climate is changing because of the greenhouse effect: heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere retain the emitted heat radiation reflected when the sun’s rays touch the earth’s surface. Were it not for some level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the planet would be too cold to support life as we know it. But our burning of fossil fuels, our razing of forests and our agricultural practices have elevated the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Prior to the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million. Today it is 391 ppm and rising by about two ppm each year. Between 1900 and 2009 the global average surface temperature rose 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

This increase may appear negligible. But the global climate is a complex reality. A small change in average temperature has ripple effects on ocean currents, precipitation patterns and other climate systems. A small temperature rise is already destabilizing the energy balance of the climate and spawning changes adverse to human beings and other species.

The effects of climate change can be seen in many areas, including the following:

Agriculture. Plants are very sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. Between 1980 and 2008, rising temperatures reduced total global wheat production by 5.5 percent. According to a study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature will reduce the global yields of wheat, rice and corn by an additional 10 percent. Some regions will be affected more severely than others. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projects that as early as 2020 grain yields in some African countries could be reduced by half.

Water. Around the world, sources of the fresh water necessary for life are diminishing. Last May, a working group commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences published a report on the retreat of the world’s mountain glaciers. The water flowing gradually from these majestic ice formations sustains rivers that bring life to valley ecosystems and human communities. But the European Alps have already lost 50 percent of their glacial mass, and thousands of small glaciers in the Himalayan-Tibetan region are also disintegrating. In Asia alone, over one billion people are in danger of losing their primary source of life-giving water.

Rising sea level. Melting glaciers and thermal expansion of ocean waters are contributing to a rise in sea level already documented by scientists. According to one estimate, over the course of this century we can expect a rise of three to six feet. At just three feet, half of the rice fields in Bangladesh would be submerged. Portions of major coastal cities including New Orleans, Tampa and Miami would be inundated.

Ocean decline. The oceans absorb more than a quarter of the carbon we emit through the combustion of fossil fuels; they thus become more acidic. This contributes to the decline of the coral reefs that provide habitat for a diverse array of sea creatures, including fish that are a source of protein for nearly one billion people. The warming of ocean waters has also been linked to a decline in the population of phytoplankton. These microscopic creatures produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and form the base of the entire marine food web.

Extreme weather events. There has been a marked increase in floods, droughts and other extreme weather events related to climate change. The increase in the intensity and duration of hurricanes, for example, has been correlated with rising sea surface temperature by Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mass extinctions. Species already suffering from habitat loss in a world dominated by humanity may not be able to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. A report published in Nature in 2004 concluded that a climate warming in the mid-range of current projections will by the year 2050 lead to the extinction of 15 percent to 37 percent of the species examined in the study. Biodiversity is essential to ecosystem resilience. And as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, the rich diversity of earthly creatures gives humanity a glimpse of the beauty and glory of God.

Tipping Point

People who are fortunate enough to live in homes with central heating can quickly adjust their thermostats to raise or lower temperature. One might imagine that at some future point, we could cease our greenhouse gas emissions and similarly return the planet to its prior state. The global climate, however, cannot be so easily moderated. The carbon dioxide we have already added to the atmosphere and oceans will affect the earth for generations. Moreover, the earth’s climate is not a simple mechanical system but a complex of many interlocking, nonlinear relationships, including phenomena known by climate scientists as “positive feedbacks”—processes that take a small change in temperature and amplify it to exponential effect.

Consider, for example, the melting Arctic ice caps. These enormous white crests deflect solar radiation back into space, just as white clothing protects people from summer heat. As the ice caps melt, dark seawater that absorbs solar warmth is exposed. This elevates the temperature of the ocean water, which increases the melting of the ice caps, which decreases the polar deflection of solar radiation, and on it goes.

This kind of feedback process is also evident in the decline of the world’s forests. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and play an essential role in regulating global climate. Across the globe, forests are dying back. The underlying cause appears to be stress from rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns. When trees die, they stop the photosynthesis that removes carbon from the atmosphere, and as they decompose they release the carbon they have absorbed. This intensifies global warming, which increases the stress to forests, which kills more trees, which release more carbon and so forth.

Another feedback process is at work in Siberia, where an enormous expanse of frozen tundra is beginning to thaw. The tundra holds an estimated 70 billion tons of carbon, much of which would be released as methane, a gas 25 times more powerful in its heat-trapping effect than carbon dioxide.

These positive feedbacks are one reason that climate change is progressing more rapidly than first projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The rate of sea-ice melt in the Arctic, for example, is 30 years ahead of a prediction the I.P.C.C. made in 2007. Using both current observable reality and data from paleoclimate studies, an international group of scientists has recommended that to preserve a climate hospitable to life, carbon levels must be at no more than 350 ppm.

But atmospheric carbon dioxide is already at 391 ppm and rising. If we are to have at least a fighting chance of returning carbon dioxide levels to 350 ppm, an unprecedented level of global cooperation will be required to transform our sprawling fossil-fuel global economy to a network of efficient regional economies powered by noncarbon sources of energy. We must preserve surviving forests and replant denuded lands, replace agricultural practices that release methane and carbon into the atmosphere with practices that restore soils and sequester carbon, and intensify research and development of other means of removing carbon from the atmosphere.

The urgency of the transition to a new form of human civilization cannot be overstated. The warming generated by our own greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated by nonlinear feedback processes is pushing us ever closer to what scientists call “runaway climate change.” This ultimately could elevate atmospheric greenhouse gases to the level of the Cenozoic Era (65 million years B.C.), when the planet was ice-free and Homo sapiens did not exist. “We are interfering,” concludes science writer Fred Pearce, “with the fundamental processes that make Earth habitable.”

A U.N. Human Development Report in 2007-8 concluded: “There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that the world is moving towards the point at which irreversible ecological catastrophe becomes unavoidable.... There is a window of opportunity for avoiding the most damaging climate change impacts, but that window is closing.”

A Climate for Life

Unlike abortion and the death penalty, climate change is not an intentional act that ends the life of another human being. It is the unintented outcome of the industrial and agricultural processes that have accompanied our economic development. As early as 1979, however, scientists testified to Congress about the possible consequences of climate change, and our inaction is already taking the lives of vulnerable human beings. In 2009, a study conducted by the Global Humanitarian Forum found that climate change was already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year, the suffering of 325 million people and economic losses of over $100 billion. Over 90 percent of those persons most severely affected were in developing countries that have contributed least to global carbon emissions.

In the coming decades, climate change can bring deadly famine, displacement and disease to large sectors of the human population and spawn mass extinctions of other species. In the long term, the climate could change so radically that the earth could no longer support human civilization. In this sense, caring for the climate and the biosphere is a paramount pro-life issue.

“How long will countless people have to go on dying,” lamented Cardinal óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga in a homily at a Mass during the U.N. conference in Durban, “before adequate decisions are taken?” The cardinal is president of Caritas Internationalis and a native of Honduras, where extreme weather events have already decimated the crops, livestock and homes of many. According to a Caritas spokesperson, Patrick Nicholson, the agreement in Durban to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol falls far short of the actions that scientists believe are necessary to prevent widespread droughts and the mass migrations of peoples who will be displaced from regions where food production has collapsed.

The failure of the governments represented at Durban to reach a stronger agreement makes ecclesial action even more urgent. The Vatican has installed solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI auditorium and declared the intention to make Vatican City the first carbon-neutral state. In the United States, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change is supported by the bishops’ conference and other Catholic bodies. The coalition is leading multiple initiatives, including the Catholic Climate Covenant, which emphasize the importance of solidarity with those whose lives are threatened or diminished by climate change.

Participants in this covenant pledge, in the spirit of St. Francis, to educate themselves, pray, change energy-intensive patterns of living and lobby for policies that will address the climate crisis. These essential initiatives can be strengthened by recognizing that climate change is a life issue that merits our attention and inclusion in the annual Respect Life programs in October and the National Prayer Vigil for Life in January. We should also pursue new pro-life initiatives specific to the climate crisis, like legal action to hold our government accountable for its repeated failure to protect the earth for generations unborn.

Our imperiled planet needs the distinctive paschal witness the Catholic community can offer. In an Easter address in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stated that at this time of ecological and economic crisis, “it is urgent to rediscover grounds for hope.... Christ is looking for men and women who will help him to affirm his victory using his own weapons: the weapons of justice and truth, mercy, forgiveness and love.”

Elizabeth Groppe is associate professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Daniel R. DiLeo, a graduate student in the M.T.S. program at Boston College, also contributed to this article.<

Comments

5724523 | 3/31/2012 - 4:22pm

From time to time, I do talks at local churches about the Christian Response to the Environmental Crisis. Although almost everyone can accept that rainforest destruction is a bad thing, and that water pollution and endocrine disruptors are an issue....we have so politicized climate change in the USA that my Catholic audience - largely Republican, in my area - plainly refuses to believe it. As if this is a religious argument! It's true you have to explain the science...but many just do not want to believe it, so they won't. Thank you for such a high-profile article. Now to have our priests discuss the environment from the pulpit!



7186489 | 3/31/2012 - 3:24pm
My appreciation to Elizabeth Groppe for covering all the climate bases and for some real suggestions on what the Church can do. Xavier is lucky to have you!   My thanks to "America" for realizing that we need articles like this since most Americans are insulted when discussion occurs about making a life style change to care for God's creation. I will recommend this article in my monthly "Climate Clips" newsletter,  emailed to my parish Peace and Justice Commission members  
Steve Herro | 3/17/2012 - 11:37am
I found this article very helpful and plan to use it in an event that we are planning for an Interfaith Prayer Service at Catholic Charities USA during Earth Week.  I would like to thank the authors for their fine article.
David Backes | 3/16/2012 - 7:09pm
I suspect that few Catholics, let alone non-Catholics, realize how many powerful statements our recent popes have made about the social and environmental injustices of the free market fundamentalism and casual materialism that reign supreme in the U.S.  I am preaching this weekend, and the readings have led me to prepare my first homily about climate change as a direct result of a widespread materialism that we don't even recognize as unjust.  I am incorporating just several quotes from John Paul II and Benedict, and not even the most radical ones at that.  (For example, did you know that Pope Benedict calls for the global redistribution of energy resources?  See his encyclical Caritas in veritate (Charity and Truth), #49.)  Here is what I'm saying this weekend: Preferring the Darkness
Stanley Kopacz | 3/16/2012 - 5:09pm

I'm not a climatologist but I do have an undergraduate degree in physics and a masters degree in optical engineering which I've practiced for 40 years. I do know something about spectral transmission of light through the atmosphere. There's nothing in my training and background to tell me that the 97% of climatologists are wrong about human-caused global warming. The American Institute of Physics has a website about the history of the science at www.aip.org/history/climate/co2.htm . The AIP acccepts human-caused global warming as a scientific fact. While the scientific community has become more certain of the seriousness of the problem, the American public has gone in the opposite direction, with only 40% thinking it is a problem. The problems of energy conservation, alternative energy infrastructure and population control have to be addressed. Otherwise, global civilization will fall into a pit from which it may never recover. We had a gift of cheap energy. Instead of using it to advance our civilization to a sustainable level, it has already been mostly wasted. Add to this the "don't worry, be happy" trance induced in the Reagan era and it looks like we may not make it. It will take a catastrophic turn in public opinion to prevent the coming catastrophic change in climate. To Gino Dalpiaz, sit in a car on a sunny day and close the windows. That's a basic approximation to what's happening and it's no hoax.

Fernán Jaramillo | 3/16/2012 - 3:31pm
The church can begin by educating the ignorant, i.e. those like Gino Dalpiaz.  I'm trying to do my part.

Fernan Jaramillo
Professor of Biology
Fritz Grimm | 3/16/2012 - 2:59pm

If you think that through your life style your are changing the climate, then you sho??u?l?d? ?c?h?a?n?g?e? ?y?o?u?r? ?l?i?f?e? ?s?t?y?l?e? ?o?r? ?????????????p?r?o?p?o?s?e? ?a?n? ?i?n?c?r?e?a???s?e?d? ?u?s?e? ?o??f??? ????????????????????????????????????nuclear energy! I am waiting for the American ?bishops.? to sell their cars and turn off the air conditioning!?

GINO | 3/16/2012 - 10:35am

Elizabeth Groppe's March 26 article, "Climate for Change," - What the church can do about global warming - accepts the premise that climate change and/or global warming is something unusual in the annals of history and that it is man-made. It is not a scientific fact. It is one of the greatest scientific hoaxes in history, as hundreds of scientists throughout the world are beginning to realize. What should the Church do? Stay out of the way, preach the Gospel, and let science have the last word. Also, let's be a litte more humble and give the Sun a little credit for what's happening. Otherwise, with our pseudo-science  we'll be guilty of inflicting incalculable damage on planet earth for generations to come.

The climate is changing because of the greenhouse effect: heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere retain the emitted heat radiation reflected when the sun’s rays touch the earth’s surface.