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Follow up: John Paul II on the link between humans and climate change

May 1, 2007

Last Friday, I posted a lengthy documented post on the Holy See’s public position on the question of a link between human activity and climate change. This post was written in response to some clumsily written remarks from Thomas N. Peters and Jimmy Akin. Peters described global warming as surrounded by many “myths,” almost becoming a “secular religion.” Akin posted a video and approvingly linked to a conservative, ideological commentary that calls the video “devastating” to any position that claims human activity has had an adverse affect on climate change. Teasing out the implications of Peters’ and Akins’ comments, I submitted that they should have looked into the Holy See’s position on the question before writng their Catholic opinions. After, the Holy See’s position is the very one mocked by Peters and “devastatingly devastated” by Akin’s video. My beef? These bloggers unwittingly aid not only in narrowing the scope of episcopal authority in the minds of misinformed Catholics, but also in the undermining of the Holy See’s interests in educating Catholics and affecting positive political change.

One commentator, Michael Denton of For the Greater Glory, made the following remarks in the comment thread from my initial post (among others):

  • The fact remains that while the papal nuncio and academy of science agree with you, you have yet to produce a quote from either JPII or BXVI to indicate that they think global warming is man-made. If anything, your quotes show a papal hesistancy to definitively make that claim and instead simply reinforce the Catholic teaching of stewardship.
  • So the pope is telling us to be good stewards and be concerned about the issue. Never does he say that “man has caused global warming and man should fix it.”
  • You’re ignoring my arguments that the popes didn’t say what you’ve claimed them to say.

Now, I’ve been accused of hyper-papalism (this term made me shutter since the historically and theologically accurate term would be Ultramontanism) because I tend to end up arguing for the same position on socio-economic issues as the past six or seven popes, global warming being no exception. Funny thing is, you’ll find me more often than not arguing for the authority of the local bishop or the USCCB. Be that as it may, the attentive reader would have noticed in my initial post that by and large my quotes were taken from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See to the U.N. But now Michael Denton insists I provide quotes only from either Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.

Okay, fine. I’ll limit myself to four documents from John Paul II, which, taken together, unequivocally declare the link between human agency and climate change. First, a quick aside: There’s no such thing as “manmade” global warming. There are “manmade” lakes and canals, and there are “manmade” metals and elements. But humanity cannot “make” global warming. It’s not manufactured. Rather, we may say that humanity “affects” the natural phenomenon of climate change. Now for John Paul II…

Certain elements of today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. First among these is the indiscriminate application of advances in science and technology. Many recent discoveries have brought undeniable benefits to humanity. Indeed, they demonstrate the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action in the world. Unfortunately, it is now clear that the application of these discoveries in the fields of industry and agriculture have produced harmful long-term effects. This has led to the painful realization that we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.

The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related “greenhouse effect”has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.

While in some cases the damage already done may well be irreversible, in many other cases it can still be halted. It is necessary, however, that the entire human community – individuals, States and international bodies – take seriously the responsibility that is theirs.
Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, no. 6

But we recognized too that the many challenges facing the peoples of Oceania at this time are summoning the Church to engage the Pacific peoples and their cultures with renewed vigour and conviction. The Synod heard of economic crises, political instability, corruption, ethnic conflicts, the erosion of traditional forms of social organization, the breakdown of law and order, the threat of global warming and, especially in the wealthier societies, of a genuinely spiritual crisis of meaning which shows itself most clearly in the erosion of respect for human life.
Address on the promulgation of Ecclesia in Oceania

The island nations of Polynesia and Micronesia are relatively small, each with its own indigenous language and culture. They too are facing the pressures and challenges of a contemporary world which exerts a powerful influence upon their society. Without losing their identity or abandoning their traditional values, they want to share in the development resulting from more direct and complex interaction with other peoples and cultures. That is proving to be a delicate balance in these small and vulnerable societies, some of which are facing a very uncertain future, not only because of large-scale emigration but also because of rising sea levels caused by global warming. For them, climate change is very much more than a question of economics.
Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania, no. 6

The good of peace will be better ensured if the international community takes on greater responsibility for what are commonly called public goods. These are goods which all citizens automatically enjoy, without having consciously chosen them or contributed to them in any way. Such is the case, for example, at the national level, with such goods as the judiciary system, the defence system and the network of highways and railways. In our world the phenomenon of increased globalization means that more and more public goods are taking on a global character, and as a result common interests are daily increasing. We need but think of the fight against poverty, the promotion of peace and security, concern for climate change and disease control. The international community needs to respond to these interests with a broader network of juridical accords aimed at regulating the use of public goods and inspired by universal principles of fairness and solidarity.
Message for the World Day of Peace in 2005, no. 7

When we consider these quotes together, we may conclude that Pope John Paul II consistently held:

1. Industrial growth, urban concentration and energy needs have directly contributed to the gradual depletion of the ozone layer, rising sea levels and “greenhouse effects” (i.e. global warming). Some of these consequences of human activity may be irreversible.

2. The problem of climate change is more than an economic or industrial issue. The entire human community is morally obliged to take seriously its responsibility to care for the environment, a task that includes regulating the use of public goods (production and distribution).

3. Just as human activity has negatively affected climate change in some measure, it might not be too late to establish economic, legal, environmental and ethical principles that may curb these negative impacts.

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