Will the Vatican Finally Wake Up to the Dangers of Climate Change? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

During the first week of May 2011, the Pontifical Academy of Science released a report on the potentially devastating impact of climate change. The Working Group which consisted of glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers and lawyers was co-chaired by Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Nobel laureate Paul Cruzen. Though initially their focus was on glaciers, the study was expanded to include the impact on climate change of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.[1] The widespread loss of glaciers, ice and snow on mountains in the tropical, temperate and polar regions is some of the clearest evidence we have for a change in the climate system which is taking place at a rapid pace across the globe. The authors call “on all people and the nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impact of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. If we want justice and peace we must act to protect the habitat that sustains us.”[2]

The Report examines how climate change will impinge on forests, wetlands, grasslands and, crucially, food production. The scientists claims that, because humans have pumped billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the past few decades, “human interference” has resulted in the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in the past 800,000.

This is not a minor problem. The authors say “we have entered a new geological epoch when the impact of mankind (humankind) became a major factor in environmental and climate changes.”[3]

Nor can we put dealing with climate change on the long finger after we have sorted out our economic problems. The authors state that climate change is already under way and actions (to reduce carbon emissions) to mitigate its worst affects are a matter of social justice, especially for the poor.  It ties these mitigating actions to the biblical idea of “stewardships” for the Earth.  It is significant that the Report uses the language of the UN Convention of Climate Change which calls on everyone to act in a “spirit of common but differentiated responsibility.” This means that economically rich nations, such as the US, the EU, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, which built their prosperity on burning fossil fuel, must act first and make financial resources available to poor countries so that they can protect themselves from the consequences of climate change.  The United States has consistently opposed this principle. It insists everyone must act together, especially the newly industrialised nations such as China, India and Brazil. Unfortunately, some of the recently elected legislators in the US are climate sceptics and are blocking any action at a Federal level to deal with it.

The Report makes three recommendations:

1.     Reduce worldwide carbon dioxide quickly, using every means possible. All nations must change from carbon-based energy to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

2.     Strengthen carbon sinks by protecting forests and replanting in degraded lands.

3.     Make extensive provisions to help poor countries adapt to the sudden impact of climate change such as more severe weather patterns and rising sea-levels

Will anyone listen to these almost apocalyptic predictions?  Will the Vatican itself listen? Climate change has not been on the priority list of the Holy See. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published as recently as 2004, has only one paragraph on climate change.  The Encyclical Caritas in Veritate published in 2009, does not mention climate change.  There was no statement from the Holy See at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at Cancun in December 2010. Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, is constantly disparaging the science behind climate change. Given the seriousness of climate change as outlined in this study, will Vatican now caution him or sanction him in any way?  His colleague, Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba was forced to resign by the Vatican for publicly asking questions about the future of ministry in the Catholic Church. In a pastoral letter in 2006, he asked how ministry in the Catholic Church can be re-envisioned,  given the fact that in many places around the world vocations to the male, celibate priesthood have collapsed. For raising this question, which is on the mind of countless other Catholics as priests grow older, he was forced to resign. How Rome responds to Cardinal Pell’s climate change denying utterances will tell a lot about whether the Vatican is really serious about climate change.

Will this new report of the Pontifical Academy of Science persuade Cardinal Pell of the seriousness of climate change.  In the past he has dismissed the “hysterical and extreme claims about global warming” and seen them as symptoms of “pagan emptiness.” He is scheduled to give a lecture on the subject in October 2011 at Westminister Cathedral Hall, entitled, “One Christian Perspective on Climate Change. The lecture is sponsored by the Foundation established by Lord Nigel Lawson. Lord Lawson has written a book questioning whether climate change is taking place.  [4]



[1]  Ron Bennenati, “Vatican Calls for Immediate Action on Climate Change,” Sustainablebusiness.com News

www.sustainablebusiness.com/index/go/news.display/id/22362  Downloaded on May 6th 2011.


[3]  Ibid.

[4] Notebook, The Tablet, April 16th 2011, page 18.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s