Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene Fr. Seán McDonagh SSC

Because of the dire consequences to humanity and other creatures if the average global temperature rises above 2 degrees Celsius, I am disappointed that the above report produced by the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences has received such  little publicity in the secular or Catholic media.  The working party which produced the report included glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers and lawyers.


The Vatican document is very clear and focused.  It begins with a strong call on “all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by anthropogenic (human) emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and also by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands and other forms of land use.”

The document stresses the urgency of taking action immediately. “We  appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home.”  Everyone on the planet has some responsibility to deal with climate change, but those who caused the problem in the first place, by burning large quantities of  fossil fuel for the past 150 years,  must act first.  The prosperity of Europe, the US, Canada, Japan and Australia was based on the use of fossil fuel. Africa, for example, is only responsible for 3 percent of fossil fuel emissions, but already many countries in that continent are feeling the adverse affects of climate change either through prolonged droughts or floods.

The document employs the phraseology of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which states that “by acting now, in a spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life,” In the UNFCCC discussions the U.S. has been vigorously opposed to the phrase “common but differentiated responsibility.”  It wants everyone, especially what are called the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and South Africa to bear the same burdens.  Their argument is that if the burden sharing is not equal, this will give emerging economies an advantage in attracting industry and boosting their economies at the expense of others.

Embedded in the title to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences’ report is the claim that the best way to describe what human beings are doing to the planet is to use a geological perspective.  The authors use the term ANTHROPOCENE which was coined by the Nobel Laureate, Paul Cruzen to accurately capture what human activity has done to the planet in the past 200 years.

The first person I heard using this kind of language was Fr. Thomas Berry. Tom argued that the changes which human beings have brought in the biosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1750 are of a geological order of magnitutde. Beginning with the steam phases of the industrial revolution, right through the petrochemical, electrical, nuclear, biological and genetic phases of that revolution, humans were bringing about changes which at other times in the history of the planet took millions of years to accomplish.  For example, the last time a serious extinction spasm happened was at the end of the Cretaceous epoch which had lasted from 144 to 65 million years ago.  We now believe that era came to a close because an asteroid slammed into the Earth, close to where the Yucatan peninsula is located today in Mexico.  The impact generated enormous clouds of dust and debris which interfered with photosynthesis to such an extent that the large reptiles which depended on green plant matter became extinct across the globe.  Something like 40 per cent of all life was pushed over the precipice of extinction..

The Vatican document  claims  that the 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other gases such as methane have brought about enormous changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere.  Already the Earth has warmed by  0.7 degrees Celsius since 1900 AD.   According to the report the ‘temperature guardrail for avoiding ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference” is now proposed to be at 2 degree Celsius (above pre-industrial level), although many scientists argue and many nations agree that a 1.5 degree rise is a safer upper limit.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a 3 degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures could lead to the extinction of between one-third and one-half of all life forms on Earth.  This would rival the level of extinction which took place at the end of the Cretaceous period.


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