Climate change: which Catholic response?

Climate change: which Catholic response?

William Kininmonth

William Kininmonth KHS (Knight of the Holy Sepulchre) is the former head of Australia's National Climate Centre, a consultant on climate matters to the World Meteorological Organization, and author of 'Climate Change: A Natural Hazard' (Multi-Science, UK, 2004).

'AD2000' has invited Dr Kininmonth to respond to the claims made by Fr Charles Rue in his booklet, 'Let the Son Shine: A Catholic Response to Climate Change' (Columban Mission JPIC, 2009).

'AD2000' reported on Fr Rue's Rerum Novarum Lecture which was given at the Cardinal Knox Centre last September.

Climate Change has been touted by secular leaders and opinion formers as one of the great moral issues of our time. It is therefore not surprising to find climate change as a subject of religious writing. What is surprising is the apparent certitude with which Father Charles Rue shrouds his opinions on climate change and his vitriolic denigration of those who do not share his world-view.

Father Rue should find no opposition to his 'See-Judge-Act' model as an appropriate construct for discussing climate change. This is no more than the foundation of scientific method: gathering of data, the analysis of that data for evidence, and the formulation of an appropriate response to the evidence discovered.

Unfortunately, instead of demonstrating real-world evidence, Father Rue relies solely on the authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The suggestion that the successive IPCC reports 'carry ever- increasing levels of certainty, in many cases up to 95 per cent' is a false claim based not on evidence but on the self-judged evaluation of the IPCC itself. These are not 'fearless truth-tellers' but a coterie with the arrogance of bullies.

As the recent 'climategate' scandal of leaked/hacked emails and documents from the University of East Anglia has clearly shown, a coterie involved in the IPCC process were actively rejecting and suppressing information and analyses that did not conform to their human-caused global warming scenario.

There is a glaring contradiction in the difference between Father Rue's treatment of his so-called 'deniers', who give credence to natural cycles of climate change (p. 27), and of the evidence presented for 'climate change, upheaval and renewal' (p. 32).

Of the latter, his recognition that the collapse of early civilisations was clearly connected with changes in vegetation following climate change is an acceptance of reality. Past climate should never be thought of in terms of some kind of ongoing pre-industrial Arcadia; change was the norm, not the exception.

A glimpse of the reality and wide range of natural climate variability is gleaned from the paleo-record as Earth shifted from the Last Glacial maximum to the Holocene. It was only 20,000 years ago that great ice sheets covered much of North America and northern Europe; sea level was about 130 metres lower than now.

There was significantly less evaporation from the cooler oceans and rainfall over the land was less, resulting in widespread aridity and the formation of extensive dunes across central Australia. Plant life that could survive was inhibited by low atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Earth's last great warming event commenced about 19,000 years ago and continued for nearly 10,000 years as the continental ice sheets melted and sea level rose. As the ocean surfaces warmed, evaporation and precipitation increased, carbon dioxide concentrations rose and grasslands and forests expanded.

The Holocene Optimum lasted until about 4,000 years ago, after which there is evidence of some cooling and drying. It would be only conjecture to ascribe the flight of Abraham from Ur to social disruption associated with the cooling and drying post 2,000 BC, as Father Rue has done (p. 32).

Christian era

Father Rue gives a glimpse of the reality of an ever-changing climate and its human impacts even during the Christian era. Our current relative warmth and humidity would not have been unusual during the Greco-Roman era, nor during the bountiful Medieval period. However the collapse of the Roman Empire leading to the Dark Ages was hastened by the cooling of the fourth century and the subsequent invasion of the Vandals as they readily crossed the frozen rivers of Europe in winter.

The cold of The Little Ice Age that extended from the 14th through the 17th centuries was no less than that of the Dark Ages but resilience amongst communities had become stronger with technological innovation. Depopulation of western and northern Europe at the time has been attributed to widespread death from cold and famine, compounded by plague.

Some idea of the harshness is given by the London diarist John Evelyn, writing during the freezing of the Thames River from late December 1683 to early February 1684: 'Conditions were terrible with men and cattle perishing and the seas locked with ice such that no vessels could stir out or come in. The fowls, fish, birds and exotic plants and greens were universally perishing. Food and fuel were exceptionally dear and coal smoke hung so thickly that one could scarcely see across the street and one could scarcely breathe.'

There is much public misunderstanding about the links between climate, climate change and sustainability. This misunderstanding is a common thread of Father Rue's document. The statement '... climate change is the paramount issue that the human family must act on now to secure its future in God's creation' (p. 27) is an assertion of dubious validity.

Weather extremes

There is nothing more terrifying than the extremes of weather, be they storm and tempest, flooding rain or firestorms. Nor are there few things more morally sapping as prolonged extremes of climate: crops shrivel during heat and drought, they are ruined by mould during excessive humidity, or they fail to grow during excessive cold.

These are not symptoms of climate change but are routinely used as such to scare the community. Outcomes are ascribed to human actions for which there is no evidence.

Sustainability of the human race is dependent on the way in which we utilise and interact with the resources and species of Earth. There is no evidence that climate is significantly altered by human activities. In contrast, our safety and resilience to climate extremes are fundamentally affected by the preparations we make.

Many of Fr Rue's references and quotations are extracted from the much broader context of sustainability and respect for the environment, purposes for which they are perfectly apt. References to St Francis of Assisi and suitably selected tracts from papal and other religious writings are in the tradition of Catholic teaching and give a moral compass for environmental sustainability. However, their connection to mitigation of climate change is tenuous.

The utilisation of energy, especially fossil fuels, is at the core of the alleged climate change crisis. It must, however, be recognised that utilisation of fossil fuels is the basis of civilisation's progress. Fossil fuels have enabled fewer rural and mining workers to provide the food, fibre and other raw materials needed by the manufacturing and service industries and for those building infrastructures that contribute to the safety and resilience of populations.

Notwithstanding this, fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource and not the basis for a sustainable future.

Development has not been without problems, especially initial inefficiencies and waste that often accompany new enterprises. Innovators, even with the most careful planning, rarely had perfect prescience!

However, to describe current practices in terms of 'profligate irrigation', large scale land clearing and farming and forestry that 'mine the land' is to unnecessarily denigrate hard-working and well-meaning folk.

Obvious benefits from development are clean air and water, abundant and nutritious food, and recreational parks that characterise industrially developed countries. The Landcare program is revolutionising land management and has led to a re-balancing of productivity underpinned by soil and regional ecosystem maintenance.

The evolution of modern civilisations has been accompanied by a steady drift of people from smaller rural communities and aggregation to ever larger cities.

Is there a perfect design for sustainable urban living? Most certainly not, given the social tensions that accompany closely connected high rise apartments with their reduction in personal space and freedom; and yet the alternative of urban sprawl has its own issues of time and transport.

The big disappointment with Father Rue's treatise is the false hope that it gives to good people who have faith in God. He would have been better served to give more credence to his quotation from Bishop Toohey's 2008 World Youth Day address (p 30), '... faith links feelings and reason, and these two must be kept in balance for faith to be true faith'.

The allusion that weather and climate extremes might be ameliorated, or that the course of climate might be altered, through abandonment of modern technology is a rejection of reason.

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