Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment

Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment

Responding to climate change makes sense both from our Catholic values and from a scientific viewpoint, expert speakers said recently. Over the last few weeks, the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi has been holding a community conversation on climate change, one of the most urgent issues of our time.

On April 28, Sr. Rose Marie Tresp, RSM, presented on Catholic teaching related to climate change. Our faith teaches that Christ calls us to a special concern for the poor and for the common good. Responding to climate change has moral urgency because a rapidly warming world will have the greatest effect on the poor, who have the least resources to respond to crop failures, drought, storms, and sea-level rise.

Taking action on climate change is also a matter of self-interest, said Bill Chameides, dean and Nicholas Professor of the Environment at Duke University. “We are a part of the natural world,” Chameides said May 6 at a presentation here on climate change science and policy. “It’s simply a matter of taking care of ourselves or not.” 

Warming Due to Human Activity

Over the past century, the Earth has seen a rapid average global temperature increase of up to 0.8 degree Celsius (1.5 degree Fahrenheit) higher than the pre-industrial norm. The reason climate scientists attribute most of the warming to human activities is “very, very simple,” Chameides said.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy is conserved –  it can be transformed from one form to another but can neither be created nor destroyed. Scientific documentation of a increase in temperature in the atmosphere coincided with the increase in fossil fuel burning by humans in the industrial era.

Chameides discussed two alternative hypotheses that some people have advanced to explain the worldwide temperature increase: the 11- year sun spot cycle and the oceans as a source of heat. But scientists have documented that there has been no long-term net change in the energy emitted by the sun. And measurement of the temperature of the oceans has shown their heat content to be increasing, not decreasing, ruling out the oceans as a heat source.

“As best we can tell, the only viable physical explanation for the temperature increase of the last one hundred years or so is human activity,” Chameides said.

“Stuff’s happening” worldwide with the weather, Chameides said.  Although it’s impossible to link any one event with climate change, the overall pattern is disturbing. He listed wildfires, the terrible drought in the Midwest, bad storms in the Northeast and floods in Thailand as recent examples of extreme weather worldwide.  In addition, the frequency of extremely high temperatures in summer is increasing, Chameides said.

Graduate student Christine Kenison comments on faith and climate change.

Graduate student Christine Kenison comments on values and climate change.

A Catholic Call for Response

The last two popes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, repeatedly called the faithful and policymakers to take steps to address the ecological crisis.

Pope Francis has continued in that tradition, calling at his inaugural Mass for the faithful to be “protectors” of people and of the environment. Being a protector “means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live,” Pope Francis said.

Catholic bishops also have said that addressing climate change is a matter of prudence and concern for the common good. “In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed,” said the U.S. bishops in the 2001 document “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good. “Significant levels of scientific consensus—even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious—justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers.”

Risks Are Significant, Especially for Children

Chameides, who has been a climate scientist for more than 30 years, said, “Climate change is happening, mostly due to human activity, and the risks are significant, especially for our children and grandchildren.”

He added, “It’s time for us to take some insurance to minimize those impacts.”

Chameides dismissed as a logical fallacy the argument that because some scientific uncertainty remains in climate science, we shouldn’t be concerned about global warming. “Does Uncertainty Make You Feel More Secure?” one of his Powerpoint slides read.

Some people erroneously think of climate science as a house of cards, where if one card is withdrawn, the whole house falls, Chameides said. Instead, climate science is more like a jigsaw puzzle. “All the puzzle pieces aren’t in place, but we have enough to see what the picture is,” Chameides said.

“Ask for Leadership”

Director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Tim Profeta said the national momentum for policy to address climate change got derailed when the economy tanked in 2008 and when some legislators from coal-producing states lost elections after voting for carbon reduction legislation.

Climate change legislation is unlikely to be passed by this Congress, Profeta said. Instead, the action will be at the Environmental Protection Agency as it writes regulations on sources of air pollution that endanger public health.

Both Profeta and Chameides said individual actions to reduce carbon footprint can make a difference and may be important to changing the national conversation.

But “in the end,” Profeta said, “we need solutions only policy can give us or technology.” We need to ask our leaders to take climate change seriously. “Ask for leadership,” Profeta said.

For more information on our series on climate change, go to http://bit.ly/climate_sfa.

Attendees at the Conversation on Science & Policy discuss their reactions to what they've heard.

Attendees at the Community Conversation on Climate Change Science & Policy discuss their reactions to what they’ve heard. About 40 people attended.