Catholic Climate Change for Dummies

Global warming.  There, I said it, and just jumped on the bandwagon of the alarmist camp, whose mission is to announce the ecological Armageddon.  “Man: the parasite of the planet” is our doctrine, and I must opt to live my life protesting mankind’s carbon footprint.  My environmental religion can be a bit stressful, and so after a long day of picketing against the gas-guzzling SUV’s at the Shell station, I recharge my batteries and commune with nature by giving a hug to the white pine across the street.

Sarcasm aside, I’m rather confused by global warming.  The science is contradictory.  The Wikipedia encyclopedia article on global warming reports the following: “Although not fully settled, the current consensus from the official scientific communities on climate change is that recent warming is largely human-caused” (emphasis mine). In support of this, the article offers the following fact: “The combustion of fossil fuels, including the coal-burning power plants, automobile exhausts, factory smokestacks, and other waste vents of the human environment contribute about 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere each year.”  Greenhouse gasses, according to the prevailing scientific models, are what account for current global warming. 

Yet others, not quite so quick to jump on the bandwagon of the not fully settled current consensus, claim that global warming has nothing to do with human activity, just weather cycles.  They point to the heat index of 1998 as the hottest year, arguing that the global temperature has not risen since then, and it will not rise further.  The warming is a consequence of coming out of a prior cool period — the so-called Little Ice Age — which took place from about 1550 to 1850.  The earth’s temperature should start to cool once more, in part because of cooling ocean cycles.  Professor Don Easterbrook from Western Washington University reported last November: “The cool mode has replaced the warm mode in the Pacific Ocean, virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling.”  In this same vein, Agence France-Presse reported September 10, 2002, that U.S. scientists based at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station have measured the temperature of the atmosphere 30 to 110 kilometers over the pole and found it is 20 to 30 degrees Celsius colder than computer models predicted.

To make things even more confusing the recent leaking of communications between climate change researchers calls into question whether there has been any real consensus among scientists, or whether there has been unscientific collusion to exclude some data and even exclude dissenting researchers from the discussion.

What are we supposed to make of all of this?  When the dust settles, what do I have to do with global warming anyway?  Is there a specifically Christian attitude to the issue?

On August 24, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI gave us some pointers in his general audience.  We could call it the Catholic edition of The Environment for Dummies:

The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us guidelines that assist us as stewards of his creation.  Precisely within this framework, the Church considers that matters concerning the environment and its protection are intimately linked with integral human development.

There are some very deep ideas in this statement.  Man has a responsibility toward creation as its steward.  Man is an administrator of creation and its resources.  They are his to use, but not to abuse.  Resources, then, and the environment itself, are not an end, but a means, a means “to integral human development,” as the Pope states.

Let’s define a few of these terms.  What does this stewardship mean?  A steward is a manager.  The resources that pass through his hands are not his, but are given in trust for him to use for a certain purpose and to make grow.  Thus, man is a steward of the resources of creation, and he is to manage them for a certain end, which is integral human development.

So if I want to be a “creation steward,” how ought I to work towards integral human development?  In a word, by respecting and fostering human life.  This means informing myself on the issues that protect life or threaten it, that promote or stifle religious freedom, equality, and every other basic human right.  It absolutely favors charitable assistance to the underprivileged of society.  It means knowing where political candidates stand on the abortion issue and others of such weight, and to vote accordingly. It means that whatever agreements are made among nations,  the right of the poor to participate in integral human development cannot be subordinated to emmision reduction or any other climate goals. Here, once again, leaked information gives me pause. From Copenhagen comes word that wealthier nations may be conspiring to place the greater burden of their goals on those who can least afford it, while the richest of their citizens plot to earn billions through “cap and trade” deals.

So much for the wheelers and dealers of the world; what about my responsibility towards resources?  Do I have to buy Sunkist tuna, because it is dolphin friendly, even if Bumblebee tuna is cheaper?  Do I have to campaign for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, or for renewable sources of energy?  How does a Catholic use resources?  There is nothing wrong with using resources; that is what the good Lord put them on the earth for.  However, there are simple and affordable things I can do to use resources well, by practicing good economy in my lifestyle and my choice of recreation.  While it is primarily the responsibility of legislators, social and political leaders, and governments to promote policies that favor the conservation of resources, and stimulate their use in nations still in development, nevertheless there is much that I can do on a personal level.  The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has this to say:

Lifestyles should be oriented according to the principles of sobriety, temperance and self-discipline, both at the personal and social levels. People need to escape from the consumer mentality and promote methods of production that respect the created order, as well as satisfying the basic needs of all (November 12, 2005).

But what about the whales and the trees?  The fact is I do not have direct responsibility towards the humpback whales in the Artic, nor do I need to check before purchasing toothpaste whether the company supports the Amazon rainforest.  The environment and animals are important, but are not ends in themselves.  They are cared for in regard to something else.  However, my responsibility to foster and respect human life is binding, because each and every human being is an end it itself, and may never be used as a means to get something else.  It turns out that the human person, whether “Greens” like it or not, is the centerpiece of creation.  He alone of all creation has a sense of purpose in his life, and he can recognize and live for this purpose.  He has a God-given dignity that bestows priority with respect to the goods of the earth.  Respect and care for the environment is very good and important, but only when it’s taken care of in the right order: humans first. 

So is global warming happening or not?  Don’t ask me, especially now that it’s winter.  If the scientists ever honestly look at all the data, I guess we’ll have our answer.  What’s important is that we know that we know we’re on this earth to know and love God, and to help others to do the same.  To the extent that my CO2 emissions affect this purpose, I’ll keep an eye out for the planet.

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