Carbon, climate, and ongoing criticism

First, I’d like to thank Ian from the Catholic Laboratory for interviewing me as part of his series on the Catholic engagement of science. Visit his site here and access the interview here. It was an honor to chat about the Catholic perspective of ecology for his listeners.

One topic discussed was, of course, climate change. Since recording this podcast, a few items on the topic have come to light that are worth sharing.

One is a recent study published by the United States Department of the Interior. It looks at how the natural world stores carbon. This is knowledge that may very well be helpful in understanding how we can live and work on Earth in better balance with the created order.

According to the Department of Interior:
“This report will give tools to the policymakers, land managers and the public to make sound decisions, such as whether to restore wetlands, harvest trees, develop agricultural lands, or consider no-till farming practices,” said [Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J.] Hayes. For example, a community might need to decide whether to convert grasslands and forests to croplands or urban areas to meet the demands of a growing population. Such decisions have varying consequences related to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions.
Changes in carbon storage are driven by both short- and long-term changes to the landscape. In the Great Plains, carbon storage is expected to increase based on near-future land use and management practices such as decreased timber harvesting and changes to crop management, including expanded fertilizer applications and no-till farming. The rate of increase is projected to slow somewhat over time due to climate change and land-use transitions such as grasslands or forests conversion to croplands or urban areas.
For engineers, planners and regulators, this is a meaningful study. For all of us, it simply shows that we are not always at war with nature, and vice versa.

Sadly, Catholic leaders are often criticized when they speak of such science. While I’ve posted on this just recently, I have to once again note my dismay at how some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are responding to Catholic concerns on ecology—especially climate change.

Here we get to another item in the news: As reported by Vatican Radio, Caritas Internationalis President Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga described any failure of recent climate talks in Durban, South Africa as “moral apartheid.”

In his impassioned homily on the Second Sunday of Advent, given at Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban, Cardinal Maradiaga preached the following:
The first Reading already called on us to “Console my people, console them”. Barely a week ago, torrential downpours caused a great deal of suffering and death in Durban. Don’t we realise that the climate is out of control? How long will countless people have to go on dying before adequate decisions are taken? It’s true that in faith we wait “for the new heavens and the new earth” as the second Reading told us, but this does not mean indifference or complicity with those who destroy this land where we live. “Living holy and saintly lives” means living in justice with creation and the environment, and especially with the poor people who are the primary victims of this serious problem. In the desert John “cried out” the need to prepare a way for the Lord. Today, in the desert of our planet Earth, and in the desert of our hearts, the same voice is ringing out. This conference of delegates from so many countries cannot remain as a voice silenced by economic power. It’s a voice that cries out and calls on us to: “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” At least for the moment, we should set aside our lists of pending tasks to listen to this voice that is clamouring within us: “Console my people, console them.” Powerful nations of the world, we are expecting from you the courageous decisions the world needs to live in peace and solidarity.
He then goes on to explore the personal, inner struggles each of us have in clearing a path for God, but his focus returns to the issues of the human suffering caused by a changing climate, and, thus, the importance of the UN climate conference.

News of the homily did not sit well with some. Postings at the Catholic World News site, for instance, were mostly critical of the Cardinal, and harshly so.

Here’s a sampling:
  • Your Eminence, the climate has always been and will always be out of control! The entire program of those who claim we are ruining the climate is to limit development by limiting energy production -- this is the worst thing that can happen to poor people. The people behind the panic are the anti-population, anti-development nihilists who are no friends of the poor.
  • The more Cardinals talk this way about socio-political topics, the less trust I put in their judgment. Cardinals would do better to build up the Faith and restore Tradition rather than offering oblations to every sacred cow of this benighted age.
  • Well, when it comes to green issues, count me an advocate of moral apartheid. It is becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously much of anything that comes out of the Vatican on economic or environmental affairs.
Once again we see the unfortunate and unnecessary war between political ideologies fouling the dialogue between faith and reason. I know that this is to be expected in our fallen world and with our fallen human nature, but I don’t have to like it.

I discuss some of this in the Catholic Laboratory interview, but I’ll repeat a brief bit here. Our understanding of anthropomorphic climate change is as about as sound as one can get in the world of science. And what the science implies is this: Existing patterns of water and food supplies will alter as does the climate, and this will bring hardship to populations that can’t easily move with such shifts. The science is also telling us that weather patters, thermal energy, and moisture concentrations will also shift as does the climate. Again, this will cause harm to people. Harm will also come from rising levels of the world's oceans, seas, bays, and estuaries—rises that are already being recorded and noticed.

One can understand some of the points made by critics of Cardinal Maradiaga’s homily. It is not appropriate to equate individual weather events with climate. But it seems that what the Cardinal was referring to is not individual events, but patterns of events experienced and communicated to him by many in his care. And climate is about patterns.

I commend the Cardinal for his homily and his passion. As a good pastor who has most certainly learned at thing or two from his time hearing confessions, sometimes we really can see the patterns of sin in the world. And when we do, we must respond, repent, and change our ways so that we can prepare the way for the Lord—even if such repenting, changing, and preparing is painful.

And so here at this contentious intersection of faith, reason, carbon, and climate, I’ll end on a happy note—with an Irish blessing sent to me just today by a wonderful woman in my parish. In her Christmas note to me she wrote this, which I wish now to you, to Cardinal Maradiaga, and to those who criticize him:
May life gently lead you through its lush fields of good fortune, and always may God fill your heart with peace and understanding.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.