Read Princess Ikatekit’s first place winning essay in the First Annual Undergraduate Applied Social Justice Essay Competition

Princess Ikatekit discusses global warming and climate change "as viewed through the lens of Catholic Social Justice" at the Undergraduate Applied Social Justice Essay Competition Reception on April 15, 2010


Global Warming

and Climate Change:

A Catholic Perspective

“Some of the scientists, I believe, haven’t they been changing their opinion a little bit on global warming? There’s a lot of differing opinions and before we react I think it’s best to have the full accounting, full understanding of what’s taking place.”       George W. Bush, Presidential Debate, Oct. 11, 2000


Former President George W. Bush was right, of course. The great debate (all great debates) must begin from a definitive standpoint. What is global warming? Is it a serious threat? What causes it? What are its effects? What measures have been taken to combat it? Should measures be taken to combat it? The main contributors to this debate have been: scientists, the media, environmentalists, and politicians, but more recently, a new voice has joined the fray—that of the Catholic Church. This essay will focus on the crisis of global warming as viewed through the lens of Catholic Social Justice.

We shall begin, however, in the recommended manner—at the beginning. What is global warming? The global warming hypothesis was first developed in 1896 by a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius, who postulated that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels would cause global temperatures to rise by trapping excess heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Arrhenius understood that the earth is heated by a process known as the greenhouse effect—the phenomenon by which the earth’s atmosphere traps solar radiation caused by the presence in the atmosphere of gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane that allow incoming sunlight to pass through (much like a greenhouse) but absorb heat radiated back from the earth’s surface (“Greenhouse effect”). Later, scientists elaborated on Arrhenius’ theory of global warming and became concerned that increasing concentrations of “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere were causing an unprecedented rise in global temperatures, with potentially harmful consequences for the environment and human health (Haley 12).

In 1988, the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], comprising more than two thousand scientists responsible for studying global warming’s potential impact on climate. According to the IPCC, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by 31 percent, methane by 151 percent and nitrous oxide by 17 percent since 1750. Over the twentieth century, the IPCC believes that global temperatures increased close to 0.5 degree Centigrade, the largest increase of any century during the past one thousand years. The 1990s, according to the IPCC data, was the warmest decade recorded in the Northern Hemisphere since the records were first taken in 1861, with 1998 the warmest year ever recorded. (Haley 13)

Given this data, many scientists are convinced that there is a direct correlation between rising global temperatures and the emission of greenhouse gases stemming from human activities such as automobile use, the production of electricity from coal-fired power plants and agricultural and deforestation practices. (Haley 13) These scientists and other environmentalists are predicting that global warming will have mostly negative consequences for the world’s climate, based on IPCC projections that global temperatures will increase by 2.5 to 10.4 degrees between 1900 and 2100. Kelly Reed of the environmental organization Greenpeace states that, “The negative effects of global warming not only include rising global temperatures, but an increase in floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, intensified hurricanes and the spread of infectious disease.” Environmentalists have used this platform to advise the world’s governments of the importance of limiting greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

Not surprisingly, in response to these pressures, a growing band of skeptical scientists are questioning the validity of the global warming theory. According to these critics, the IPCC bases its predictions for rising global temperatures on faulty computer climate models, which exaggerate the climate’s response to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, while failing to accurately reproduce the motions of the atmosphere. Richard L. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains, “Present models have large errors… [and] are unable to calculate correctly either the present average temperatures of the earth or the temperature ranges from the equator to the poles…Models…amplify the effects of increasing carbon dioxide.” Lindzen asserts that if models accurately represented the role of the major greenhouse gas—water vapor—in the climate system, they would predict a warming of no more than 1.7 degrees C if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were doubled. This warming is significantly less than the 4 to 5 degrees C temperature increase forecasted by IPCC models under a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. (Haley 14)

Global warming skeptics also argue that natural climate activity, rather than human activity is responsible for the past century’s rising temperatures. S. Fred Singer, perhaps the most vocal of the skeptics, and a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, states that the earth’s climate has never been steady and has continually warmed and cooled over the course of geologic time without any assistance from human activity. Says Singer, “The human component [in recent global warming] is thought to be quite small…The climate cooled between 1940 and 1975, just as industrial activity grew rapidly after WWII. It has been difficult to reconcile this cooling with the observed increase in greenhouse gases.” Singer goes on to argue that temperature observations since 1979 are in dispute: Surface readings with temperatures show a rise of about 0.1 degree C per decade, while data from satellites and balloon-borne radiosondes [miniature transmitters] show no warming—with possible indications of a slight cooling—in the lower atmosphere between 1979 and 1997. For Singer and other skeptical scientists, there should be no limits placed on the consumption of fossil fuels until the science behind global warming theory is more settled. (Haley 14)

It is now clear that an impasse has been reached by certain participants in the global warming debate about whether global warming is real or not, and whether it has been caused by human activities or by natural factors. But it is true, and obvious to everyone in different regions around the world that a drastic change has began to occur in our weather patterns: there are frequent and devastating storms, killer heat waves, flood-level rains, hurricanes and droughts, all more severe than ever before. Debating about abstract concepts no longer cuts it; we may not agree completely on some of the issues surrounding global warming, but we must deal with the situation of climate change as it is on the ground.

This is the point at which the Catholic Church makes its voice heard. The Catholics introduce a key ingredient to the debate—the human factor—which the other groups seem to forget while espousing their opinions, beliefs and research findings. According to U.S. Catholic Bishops, “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” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). They reference themes from the Catholic Social Justice teachings to back their conclusions; we discuss these themes here in order to form a fuller understanding of the Catholic perspective on global warming.

The Universal Common Good

The U.S. Catholic Bishops point out that global climate is by its very nature a part of the planetary commons. The earth’s atmosphere is inclusive of all people, creatures and habitats, therefore the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, the destruction of rain forests, and the pollution of water in one place should not be taken to be isolated events occurring “far off,” instead we should  consider that these events can have environmental impacts elsewhere. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well being of future generations” (John Paul II no.6). Responses to global climate change should reflect our interdependence and common responsibility for the future of our planet; the Bishops continue to tell us. Individual nations must measure their own self-interest against the greater common good and contribute equitably to global solutions. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Stewardship of God’s Creation

Stewardship, as defined by the Bishops is the, “The ability to exercise moral responsibility to care for the environment.” The significant aspects of this kind of stewardship would include the right to private initiative, ownership of property, and exercise of responsible freedom in the economic sector.

Economic freedom, initiative, and creativity are essential to helping us find effective ways to address climate change. A country like the United States which is wealthy and has an impressive history of economic, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship, would not find it beyond its means to rise up and meet the challenge of global warming, if so inclined. The Bishops go on to add that, “the right to private property is matched with a responsibility to use what is owned to serve the common good,”—what they term a social “mortgage” on property—and so the United States is called to use the gifts it has been given to protect human life and dignity, and to exercise care for God’s creation.

The Bishops exhort that, “True stewardship requires changes in human actions—both in moral behavior and technical advancement.” Thus we are asked, in accordance with religious tradition, to exercise restraint and moderation in our use of material goods, and not allow our desire to possess more material things to overtake our concern for the basic needs of people and the environment. With the help of technological innovation and entrepreneurship, it is possible for us to begin to travel a more environmentally benign energy path, the Bishops assert. Changes in lifestyle based on traditional moral virtues will eventually ease the way to a sustainable and equitable world economy in which sacrifice will no longer be an unpopular concept. A renewed sense of sacrifice and restraint could make an essential contribution to addressing global climate change. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Protecting the Environment for Future Generations

The Bishops state that the common good calls us to extend our concern to the future generations. They quote Pope John Paul II, “There is an order in the universe which must be respected, and . . . the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations” (John Paul II 12). In keeping with this, we cannot simply pass along the problem of global climate change to future generations because we are undecided and self-involved. We have an obligation, as stewards of their heritage, to respect their dignity and pass on their natural inheritance, so that their lives are protected and, if possible, made better than our own. We must act now.

Caring for the Poor and Issues of Equity

In this, the Catholic Bishops emphasize that the common good requires that we “promote the flourishing of all human life and all of God’s creation” and maintain “solidarity with the poor who are often without the resources to face many problems, including the potential impacts of climate change.” We are one human family, they tell us; our obligations stretch across space and time to tie us to the poor our midst and across the globe, as well as to future generations. This is what the commandment, “Love your neighbor,” means. The poor and marginalized of other nations are our true brothers and sisters too.

Following this reasoning, all nations must share the responsibility to address the problem of global climate change. But historically the industrial economies have been responsible for the highest emissions of greenhouse gases that scientists suggest are causing the warming trend. Also, they are in a better position economically, as well as in terms of technological sophistication and entrepreneurial creativity to find useful responses to this problem. The Bishops suggest that, in order to avoid greater impact, energy resource adjustments must be made both in the policies of richer countries and in the development paths of poorer ones.

Admittedly, the current use of fossil fuels has fostered and continues to foster substantial economic growth, development, and benefits for many. However, there is a legitimate concern that as developing countries improve their economies and emit more greenhouse gases, they will need technological help to mitigate further atmospheric environmental harm. So many of the poor in these countries, as the Bishops have pointed out, live in desperate situations that often lead them to adopt environmentally harmful agricultural and industrial practices. The environmental strains will only add to the problems of the governments of these poorer countries. Developing countries have a right to economic development that can help lift people out of dire poverty. Wealthier industrialized nations have the resources, know-how, and entrepreneurship to produce more efficient cars and cleaner industries. If the wealthier nations were to share their emerging technologies with the less-developed countries and assume more of the financial responsibility that would enable poorer countries to afford them, the developing countries would be able to adopt energy-efficient technologies more rapidly while still sustaining healthy economic growth and development. This is the idea that the Catholic Bishops are in favor of and say will contribute greatly to dealing with the consequences of global warming. They conclude by saying that, “No strategy to confront global climate change will succeed without the leadership and participation of the United States and other industrial nations. But any successful strategy must also reflect the genuine participation and concerns of those most affected and least able to bear the burdens.” In their opinion, ensuring that developing and poorer nations have a genuine place at the negotiating table is a moral and political necessity for advancing the common good.

Now talk is all good, you might say, but what have these Catholic Bishops actually done in keeping with their edicts? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Environmental Justice Program was established in 1993 in response to the bishops’ call for greater attention to environmental concerns. Specifically, this program seeks to educate and motivate Catholics to a deeper respect for God’s creation, and to engage parishes in activities aimed at addressing environmental problems, particularly as they affect the poor. It carries out four main tasks: scholarship, leadership and development, public policy and advocacy, and special projects.

Under scholarship, the USCCB Environmental Justice Program sponsors Catholic scholars to do theological research covering Catholic social justice as applied to environmental concerns. These useful papers have been assembled into readers such as And God Saw That It Was Good: Catholic Theology and the Environment for use by universities, seminaries, and others.  In regard to leadership and development, the program has been involved in training Catholic leaders to become familiar with Catholic Social Justice, theology and the environment, and to assist their dioceses and parishes in establishing relevant programs. The USCCB Environmental Justice Program also seeks to influence environmental public policy in light of Catholic teaching by integrating these concerns into the diocesan policy networks. Finally, the USCCB Environmental Justice Program’s special projects include alleviating the disproportionate burdens borne by the poor and improving children’s environmental health. The program has grantees stationed in different states all across the country, for example: North Carolina, Connecticut, California, Michigan and Indiana. (USCCB: Environmental Justice Program)

A few other organizations such as the Catholic Relief Services [CRS], Catholic Charities USA and Caritas Internationalis work closely with the USCCB too, under the umbrella of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change [CCCC], to reach out and help those people living in poverty—all around the world—who are unable to respond adequately to the effects of climate change. These effects include: increasingly limited access to water, reduced crop yields, more widespread disease, increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and conflict over declining resources. Caritas, for example, is active in over 200 countries and is committed to bringing relief to communities, whether it is in the form of food, medicine, shelter, emergency programming or disaster preparedness. Very recently, they were able to provide the people in Internally Displaced Peoples [IDP] camps in Darfur with solar panels, a clean and easily sustainable technology. (Caritas Internationales) Caritas members from all around the world also travelled to Copenhagen to lobby governments, in the matter of the plight of developing countries, at the key climate change meeting that took place there in December last year.

To conclude this paper, I will bring up just one more personal observation. While doing the preliminary research for this essay, or gathering my thoughts together, if you will, I decided to carry out an informal survey with some St. John’s students at dinner one evening in Montgoris dining hall. The question I posed was simple, “What’s your take on global warming?” You can imagine, I am sure, the incredulous expressions that crossed their faces as they paused with their forks half-way to their mouths. What kind of conversation starter was this? I got several answers, most of which were similar, but one girl’s response in particular stayed with me. She said, smacking her lips, and rolling her eyes, “It’s like, you know, that stuff…the ice…the world is melting. We need to recycle more or whatever. But who the hell likes to recycle anyway? Whatever, I don’t like to think about this stuff.”

If that girl’s attitude was representative of the average American’s response to issues concerning global warming and or climate change, then we have a very serious problem on our hands. Whether or not we believe the scientists who support the global warming hypothesis, it would be prudent to begin to take some preventative or cautionary measures. The first step to these measures would be informing the general public about what is going on to try and get them personally involved. We have heard from the media, environmentalists, the naysayers, and politicians, but not so much from the church or other religious institutions. Religious institutions have considerable influence over their followers, and if more of them became involved in this fight to save the earth, we would have more people making informed decisions and or volunteering their services to the poor in the most affected areas. We have underestimated the power of religious influence in the matter of dealing with global climate change; it is time that we began to reconsider that decision.

Works Cited

Brown, Paul. “Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change”.  Pleasantville, NY: The Readers’ Digest Association, Inc., 2007.  Print.

Gore, Albert. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Emmaus, Pa: Rodale Press, 2006. Print.

“Greenhouse Effect.” The American Heritage: Science Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. Web. 25 February 2010.

Haley, James. Global Warming: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, Calif: Greenhaven Press, 2002. Print.

John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility (Washington, D.C.: United State Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1990), no. 6.

John Paul II, On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Centesimus Annus) (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1991), no. 32.

John Paul II, “The Exploitation of the Environment Threatens the Entire Human Race,” address to the Vatican symposium on the environment (1990), in Ecology and Faith: The Writings of Pope John Paul II, ed. Sr. Ancilla Dent, OSB (Berkhamsted, England: Arthur James, 1997), 12.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholics Confront Global Poverty, 2010. Web.30 January 2010.