From the Catholic Sentinel in Portland, Oregon, quoting our friend David Schaller. Subscribe to David’s top three pieces of good news in sustainability, every Friday!
Valerie Chapman remembers standing in her childhood kitchen, listening to her mother explaining the marvels of nuclear energy. She knows the memory was an early one because of the height of the countertops.
Chapman was small, looking up.
Her mother explained how an impossibly tiny nuclear reaction would be able to provide power for entire cities — practically free energy.
Chapman, former pastoral administrator of St. Francis Parish in Southeast Portland and a Catholic climate ambassador with the Catholic Climate Covenant, knows her mother, like most if not all Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s, could not have imagined nuclear energy’s deadly risks, including accidents like the ones at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island; terrorists getting their hands on fissile materials or attacking a centralized energy system’s grid; or even the ongoing problem of where to safely discard nuclear waste.
In 2015, Pope Francis, in an audience with Japanese bishops, reportedly compared nuclear power with the Tower of Babel, when human beings tried to reach heaven through hubris, technology and engineering. “Human beings should not break the natural laws set by God,” the pope said.
Popes, scientists and the general population recognized the dangers of the escaped nuclear genie and hundreds of other environmental perils accompanying our modern lifestyles over the following decades.
The church, perhaps surprisingly to some, has been in agreement with environmental scientists.
As far back as 1971, Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote, “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.”
In 2001, St. John Paul II called for “a global ecological conversion.” He mourned that, “Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward,’ but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.”
Retired Pope Benedict, known as “the green pope,” spoke out about the environment frequently. “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?” he asked on World Day of Peace in 2010.
Pope Benedict said that in the face of such looming catastophes, the church was the world’s only hope. “For she is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls.”
Most recently Pope Francis wrote an entire encyclical, “Laudato Si’, Care for Our Common Home” on the grave dangers inherent in our putting excess ahead of protecting the environment, calling attention to the plight of the poor of the world.
“Hotter temperatures here in the Willamette Valley mean we go buy an air conditioner,” says Chapman. “But people living in poverty can’t do that. Pope Francis calls us to think about them.”
Pope Benedict also made that point in “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), in 2009: “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility toward the poor, toward future generations and toward humanity as a whole.”
The American bishops also have spoken out about climate change and other environmental issues — to no effect for some Catholics, who don’t feel the church should wade into this politicized scientific issue.
When retired environmental scientist David Schaller, a Catholic now living in Tucson, Arizona, is asked whether he believes in climate change he tells people he believes in God. Belief is necessary because he cannot prove God’s existence.
“On the other hand, I know biology, I know physics, I know chemistry, and I know a bit of math,” he says. “This knowledge tells me that humans have systematically changed the earth’s atmosphere in the last century and this is unleashing changes in climate that can be measured in the atmosphere, in the oceans, in the soil, and in the watersheds of the world — all of which are necessary for human survival. There is nothing to believe, it just is.”
The consensus between faith and science is crucial as never before, as every new scientific finding shows climate change having even more appalling consequences than previously had been thought. Change is happening faster than scientists conservatively predicted and feedback loops are worsening effects. A 2015 World Bank report found 100 million more people could be pushed into poverty because of climate change by 2030. Last month a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor published results of research showing that areas in South Asia may be too hot for people to live there by 2100. Africa is facing more famines. Low-lying coastal areas around the world are at risk of ruinous flooding.
Chapman, in her role as a Catholic climate ambassador, says both Catholics as individuals and collectively must do what we can to counter climate change. She’s been worried by what she sees as a backlash against the data supporting the science. “It’s always been the analysis of those facts that’s been up for debate,” she says. “But when we begin doubting the very data, then there’s no truth anywhere. Where does that lead? Why would you go to school, why would you learn anything?”
It is, she says, counter to the church’s longstanding respect for learning. “Our faith teaches us to be grateful for the gift of reason we’ve been given, and for the gift of creation. When we reject learning, it puts us back into flat-earth thinking where people hold onto something despite evidence.”
Most Catholics do accept the data that the Earth is warming.
Polls conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown in May 2016 found that 65 percent of Catholics agreed that “Globally, temperatures on Earth are getting warmer, on average, in response to higher concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane.”
There’s less agreement on the cause or importance, despite ever-mounting evidence, grim scientific warnings and the popes’ calls to action.
Chapman says she speaks a lot about the cardinal virtue of prudence. “Knowing that it’s warming, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is it compassionate toward God’s creation and the poor to do anything that might exacerbate what’s going on?’ We can, as faithful and intelligent people, make choices about what to do. Maybe it won’t help, but what if it does? If what we change doesn’t make a difference, at least we’ve done what we can think of.”
A major economic analysis from 2008, “The carbon productivity challenge: Curbing climate change and sustaining economic growth,” from the McKinsey Global Institute, showed that many of the actions needed to reduce greenhouse gasses would actually spur economic growth, and give a positive “return on investment.” And that was before the costs of wind and solar power dramatically dropped.
As Pope Benedict wrote, “… at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy.”
For her part, Chapman stands with the “green pope” in his hope that the church can bring people together to save our planet. “With our church, we should be able to come together,” she says. “I have hope.”
Walking home from the market recently, Chapman spied a rock, brightly painted with the word “hope.”
She’d been picking up candy wrappers, cans and other human refuse on the trail, but she left the rock. “We need to see that,” she says. “Especially people of faith. We’re in the hope business.”