The Catholic Church and Global Climate Change

What can the Church bring to the table in discussions of climate change?

As an environmental regulator I take climate change for granted—not with the fervor of an Al Gore or the more radical elements that took part in Sunday’s global climate marches. I’d like to think I have a nuanced perspective—better yet, a Catholic one.

Helping me stay focused at work are four prayer cards over my desk. They depict the Resurrection, Christ at the Last Supper, the Sacred Heart, and the Blessed Mother embracing the smoking Twin Towers. There’s also a copy of the Litany to Humility by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X.

These are my reminders of God’s activity in human history, particularly the transformation offered us through grace. They help me engage the impacts of a changing climate (and a host of other issues) with a desire to balance faith, reason, church, state, and the necessary common sense to protect and build up the common good.

Given Tuesday’s United Nation Climate Summit in New York (which was meant to “galvanize and catalyze climate action”), and the many marches, protests, and calls for action by so many across the globe—including the Holy See’s statement to the summit—it’s a good time to consider what Catholics can offer. After all, harming the environmental isn’t just about violating the laws of nature. It’s also—and more so—about violating the natural law.

The science

I didn’t always take climate change for granted. But about five years ago a researcher from a global insurance company surprised me with a talk about his industry’s preparations for a warmer world. After that I looked deeper into the science. What impressed me was how it correlated with my experiences in more than two decades of regulating water pollution-control infrastructure.

The National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration offers an elegant little video illustrating the planet’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years. The three-minute presentation starts with the modern era (from 1979 to 2012) and then works backwards. When done, the natural ups and downs of global carbon dioxide look a little like pen lines on a heart monitor.

Over the past few decades, however, the pen has risen far above levels seen for hundreds of thousands of years. And it’s still moving up.

Skeptics have argued that the planet once had ice ages in periods with carbon dioxide levels many times higher than today. Countering this are other voices explaining that there is more to the story. Either way, as an engineer I should be concerned if we’re using design standards based on assumptions that the climate is constant when, over the past few decades, we’ve suddenly and significantly increased one of its drivers for the first time in close to a million years.

Given what we know about gases like carbon dioxide—that they act like atmospheric blankets that keep heat from escaping into space, which is a blessing, until you have too many blankets—NOAA’s data helps me understand my office’s observations of rainfall over the past few decades. In general we haven’t seen more storms. We’re seeing more intense ones—which makes sense. Warmer air holds more moisture. No matter the cause, these observed increases prompted my office in 2010 to update our design manual for stormwater infrastructure.

Elsewhere I became aware of increases in local sea levels and a host of other physical and ecological realities that impact my state’s quality of life and its economy.

Today I am one of the two-thirds of Americans who accept that there is solid evidence for climate change. And I agree that human activity is a significant reason for the change. But I understand why some think otherwise—especially given the occasional story of unscrupulous or bickering scientists, or the hijacking of ecological issues by those with purely political agendas, or the fact that in the 1970s something called “global cooling” was supposed to be the scientific concern of the day.

A more familiar objection to global warming points to years with few hurricanes or frequent periods of relative coolness—or, like last winter in much of the northern United States, radically polar cold that digs in for weeks.

But what happens in complex systems like the climate is a bit like what would happen if performance-enhancing drugs became legal in professional baseball. While overall league statistics would go way up, you still couldn’t predict which team would win the World Series, or the number of home runs in a season for any particular player. A great many other influences—player skill, coaching, injuries, team dynamics—would still be at work, although they would have altered impacts in a league on steroids.  And anyway, some players might suffer through slumps even if they had injected themselves with every steroid available.

Similarly, global-warming researchers can’t (or shouldn’t) predict that average daily temperatures will rise uniformly worldwide by this or that degree. Nor should anyone expect that the planet will never again experience temperatures below the freezing point of water. Nor will researchers be able to predict when tornadoes of a certain strength will roll across the plains of Nebraska or the dates that typhoons will clobber Japan. Nothing in life is that certain. And as the saying goes, weather is not climate.

To the extent that we can predict the future scientifically, this means using mathematical models that are run through very fast computers. But anyone who has ever scheduled a cookout based on a seven-day forecast knows that computer models have their limits. Scientists know this, too.

“Every model is wrong, but some are useful” said one climate expert at a conference of local and state planners, public works officials, and environmental regulators.

By that he meant that a computer model of an approaching hurricane won’t predict exactly when a 120-mile-an-hour gust will blast over this or that beach pavilion. But running and comparing a series of models can predict ranges of gusts along this or that coastal region, which is important to know.

No one model really means much—and different ones will offer different insights to those in the various natural sciences, whether a chemist, a physicist, or a biologist. While some models will be more or less accurate, taken together we can learn quite a bit. When you add to this what we know about humanity’s pollutant emissions, levels of deforestation, the particulars of the natural sciences, and trends around the world, it seems safe to say that the steroids we’re mixing into the atmosphere are changing to the detriment of many the way the planet plays ball.

The Church

The desire of ecological champions to do what is good, right, and just is often stymied by the realities of life in a fallen world. And a fallen humanity isn’t a question to which secular scientists or policy makers can offer lasting answers. (Which is why some secular scientists and policy makers dealing with climate change are now looking to the Church for help that can be found nowhere else.)

Thus the Church has a unique voice in worldly discussions about ecology—and right now, about what should (or should not) be done to prevent or adapt to a warming world. This uniqueness is evident in the Holy See’s statement to the United Nations Climate Summit, given by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin:

Confronting seriously the problem of global warming requires not only strengthening, deepening, and consolidating the political process on a global level, but also intensifying our commitment to a profound cultural renewal and a rediscovery of the fundamental values upon which a better future for the entire human family can be built.

Cardinal Parolin speaks of science and the necessary (but limited) offerings of human governance and economics, but he is not limited to these topics. “The greatest challenge [in dealing with climate change] lies in the sphere of human values and human dignity,” the cardinal writes, echoing the tone and message of Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis whenever they made statements on the environmental.

In a message to a 2009 United Nations climate gathering, Benedict XVI similarly underscored the Church’s interest in the matter. Calling climate change an “urgent issue,” he said that

[t]he economic and social costs of using up shared resources must be recognized with transparency and borne by those who incur them, and not by other peoples or future generations. The protection of the environment, and the safeguarding of resources and of the climate, oblige all leaders to act jointly, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the world.

It’s no wonder Benedict XVI was called the Green Pope, especially by those on the left. But whenever the pope emeritus engaged ecology he had more in mind than worldly fixes—as important as those are. The same is true for Pope Francis.

The Church’s role in the world is not to be like the world—or even to be liked. Its role is to enter into and elevate the world. The duty of the baptized is to preach the gospel for the salvation of souls, which is a process that not surprisingly makes the world a better place. This is what Pope Francis reminded us just last week during his Wednesday’s general audience.

The Vatican’s statement to the United Nations called to mind my 20-year period away from the Church—when I dabbled in various shades of agnosticism and atheism—and my return to Communion 15 years ago. My coming home came after a fair amount of experience with worldly activities—most especially civil service and political and ecological advocacy. This allows me unique insights about how the things of the world contrast with the things of God.

And so as I watched and listened over the weekend to the preparations for the United Nation’s Climate Summit, it occurred to me that whenever Catholics opt to join marches, protests, or lobbying efforts about environmental issues, we should do so differently—perhaps in ways that mirror the March for Life. That is, take to the streets, but begin with Mass. Let your cause be heard but also pray the Rosary—repeatedly. Encounter political and corporate decision makers, but first encounter Christ in silent adoration. Show the world Who offers you hope.

All this should also be part of Catholic educational panels or other forums. Keynote addresses and expert presentations can offer much that we need to hear. They offer more when, at some point, the Gospel is proclaimed and Christ the King is offered in the Eucharist.

And if we are proposing or supporting specific climate change adaptation or mitigation plans (which the Holy See’s statement did not do)—or if we wish to weigh in on how to use fossil fuels or forests—then we should do so unfettered by political ideologies. And let us be mindful of resources like appropriate papal encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which hopes “that men and women will be…enabled to interpret today’s reality and seek appropriate paths of action” (7).

In all, what the Church offers is mirrored in those four prayer cards over my desk: The Resurrection, which promises a world made new by the Creator of all that is; the Eucharist, which offers to elevate each of us, and so our individual actions in the world; the Sacred Heart, from which we find the mercy and compassion we need to teach or hear truths that challenge us; and the arms of the Blessed Mother, who offers us consolation in the sufferings that human sin has brought to a global scale.

And for good measure, there is always the Litany to Humility, which concludes with a necessary petition for those seeking to save the world: That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.

For more information on the Catholic Church and climate change, visit the Catholic Climate Covenant.

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."

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