Christ the King: The heart of behavioral climate change

The science of human behavior can only get us so far

My job required my attendance on Friday at a conference on climate change, sponsored by the University of Rhode Island Climate Change Collaborative and Rhode Island Sea Grant. It was a day well spent.

The science was solid, objective and a little scary. The blend of international and local studies made for dramatic testimony of what will be happening to our globe and to my shoreline over the next couple of decades. As if this wasn’t enough, in a brilliant stroke of collaboration with other fields, the key thrust of the day was not the natural sciences, but behavioral ones.

Dr. James Prochaska presented this latter component—and it made quite an impression.

First, a little on Dr. Prochaska: He’s clinical psychologist who directs URI’s Cancer Prevention Research Center. He’s done an enormous amount of work on smoking cessation and other health issues that can be mitigated by human behavioral changes. Moreover, it doesn’t take long to realize that he is a kind, genuine man.

I won’t go in to the details of Dr. Prochaska’s many presentations, but what struck me was his overview of what behavior change is and when it happens. Turns out, going from inaction to action isn’t the only sign of behavior change. One can begin the process even if no outward activity is evident.

If we humans are responsible for the ills of a changing climate—and if we must change our ways to control the rate of planetary ills—we’d best change our inner climates first, and fast. And for that, we need help.

According to Dr. Prochaska, the human person moves through stages as they are confronted with good reasons to change behavior—such as being presented with irrefutable information about what smoking does to your lungs and to those of the people you live with, or what happens when the temperature of the world’s oceans rise.

Indeed, listening to a behavioral scientist speak of motion from “pre-contemplation” to “contemplation” to “preparation” and onward to taking action reminded me of something Pope Benedict XVI said a few weeks back in his Message for World Food Day.Also sitting in at the conference was a fellow board member of Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light. In speaking at the breaks, we both realized that what Dr. Prochaska spoke of had much to do with what faith is about.

In discussing the inequities of local and global food distribution polices, and the economics thereof, the Holy Father got to the heart of the matter by reminding us that it is the human heart that is the matter. In considering how humanity can better feed itself, the pontiff says that

it is a question of adopting an inner attitude of responsibility, able to inspire a different life style, with the necessary modest behavior and consumption, in order thereby: to promote the good of future generations in sustainable terms; the safeguard of the goods of creation; the distribution of resources and above all, the concrete commitment to the development of entire peoples and nations.

In his talk at URI, Dr. Prochaska gave a moving example of a smoking-cessation ad that resonates with what Pope Benedict urges us to remember. The ad was of a man in grief recounting all he had heard about the dangers of cigarette smoke—warnings that he, as a cigarette smoker, had ignored. He concluded his words by saying (something to the effect of) “but I didn’t think it would kill my wife,” who had died due to his secondhand smoke.

The audience (of mostly technical experts) was moved. Indeed, we found all of Dr. Prochaska’s messages to be memorable. And so I wonder, what would my fellow audience members think of what Pope Benedict XVI has to say? Because the Holy Father has been exhorting the Church and the world during his entire pontificate that the solution to man's ills is ultimately a change of heart.

I look forward to discussing all this more with Dr. Prochaska. Because while advertising and data dumping is all very good, such techniques can not change the human heart in the same profound, miraculous ways as the Holy Spirit can. Only the light of Christ’s love can re-orient our fears, sloth and self-centeredness to strength, change and self-giving. Only God, who is love, can make man whole and act for a greater good. This conversion of heart is one important benefit of acknowledging Christ as our King.

Indeed, elsewhere in his 2011 World Food Day message, the Holy Father speaks again in ways that resonate with what scientists are saying about climate change and human behavior:

The fact cannot be glossed over that despite the progress achieved to date and the promise of an economy that increasingly respects every person’s dignity, the future of the human family needs a new impetus if it is to overcome the current fragile and uncertain situation. Although we are living in a global dimension there are evident signs of the deep division between those who lack daily sustenance and those who have huge resources at their disposal, who frequently do not use them for nutritional purposes or even destroy reserves. This confirms that globalization makes us feel closer but does not establish fraternity (cf. Caritas in Veritate, n. 19). This is why it is necessary to rediscover those values engraved on the heart of every person that have always inspired their action: the sentiment of compassion and of humanity for others, the duty of solidarity and the commitment to justice must return to being the basis of all action, including what is done by the international community.

[For more on what the Holy Father has been saying about the role of man's heart in ecological protection, see especially section 7 of his 2008 Message for World Day of Peace and his welcoming address at Sydney's World Youth Day, also in 2008.]

I hope to post some of the talks of the URI conference as they post them. But for now, let all people of faith pray for the conversion of hearts—and that these conversions occur on a global scale. Because if we humans are responsible for the ills of a changing climate—and if we must change our ways to control the rate of planetary ills—we’d best change our inner climates first, and fast. And for that, we need help.

Almighty and merciful God,

you break the power of evil and make all things new

in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe.

May all in heaven and earth

acclaim your glory and never cease to praise you.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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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.