The Vatican says to take climate science seriously

Last week I offered a scientific perspective on the recent  Vatican climate report (see “Pray for science“).   Here’s a perspective from Marta Cook of CAP’s Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative

For many Tea Party leaders and their representatives in Congress, it is an “article of faith” that the Earth was given to humans by God for their exploitation and dominion. Many have used this distorted theology to support destructive mining and drilling projects, and to pass legislation attempting to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate planet-warming carbon pollution. Conservative members of Congress would rather the federal government subsidize oil companies than invest in clean energy technology.

But such reckless disregard for the Earth, its people, and natural resources is being challenged by a broad base of faith leaders who point to the many passages in the Bible that call for humans to be caretakers and good stewards of the planet. We can now add to their voices those of a working group of scientists appointed by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a nonsectarian organization presided over by Werner Arber, a Nobel laureate and a Protestant. The academy has just issued a report that declares, without qualification and with utmost urgency, that global climate change is occurring, that humans bear responsibility for it, and that it is our gravest moral imperative to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible.

The report focuses on the causes and implications of retreating mountain glaciers and other ice forms because their melting is a key indicator of global warming. The report says these developments provide “some of the clearest evidence we have for a change in the climate system.” The report’s authors consist of “glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers, and lawyers.” The authors document the quickened pace of melting glaciers, ice, and snow across the globe, and the potential drastic consequences for human populations.

They recommend three main actions: “reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay “¦ reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants “¦ [and] prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate.”

While the report is significant in its acknowledgment of climate change and insistence on the need for the global community to take responsibility, it is hardly surprising that Catholic leadership commissioned and supported these findings. Pope Benedict XVI has been an ardent supporter for many years of recognizing the truth of climate change and the collective responsibility to reduce carbon emissions and preserve clean air and clean water. In fact, he has been dubbed the “Green Pope” in diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks.

And in a true example of “lived faith,” the pope and his leadership spearheaded renewable energy projects right in Vatican City. In 2008 the Vatican began installing 2,400 solar panels atop the pope’s audience hall, which prevents 230 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted annually. The Vatican even flirted with the idea of going completely carbon neutral by reforesting degraded land in Hungary to offset their emissions, though critics assailed the plan for its focus on offsets over efficiency improvements.

In the new pope’s first social encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” he proclaimed there is a “covenant” between humans and the environment, and “responsibility is a global one, for it is concerned not just with energy but with the whole of creation, which must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources.” He highlighted in particular the responsibility of wealthy developed nations to take the lead on these efforts.

The pope’s encyclical in tandem with the working group’s report are not meant to scare people. Rather, they are meant to confirm, once and for all, that people need to take climate change seriously, that it is no longer a matter of legitimate debate. The church’s strong moral voice shows the urgency of the issue and should persuade conservatives who oppose action to protect God’s creation that if they listen to one of the leading lights of the Christian faith on other issues, they should pay attention on this one as well.

Marta Cook is a Research Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and the Progressive Studies Program.

This article is cross-posted at Science Progress.

12 Responses to The Vatican says to take climate science seriously

  1. As an educated engineer who became a plant manager and then much later in life became a pastor, I wonder why the huge and growing body of scientific factual studies and analysis are not sufficient to counter the opposing non-scientific arguments and persuade people as to reality of this crisis. Joe Keohane, a writer for the Boston Globe, had an interesting observation on this phenomenon of our current society:
    Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

    I have spent the past year in study and reflection on this issue. As an engineer, I am convinced by the overwhelming scientific evidence and shocked at my delay in accepting this truth. As a pastor, I am deeply troubled at the suffering that is already being experienced across the globe as a result of Global Warming. As a grandparent, I truly fear for the future sustainability of the lives of my grandchildren and all of their peers across the Globe. It is my contention that Global Warming is clearly an issue of Eco-Justice which requires prophetic voices to speak the difficult truth to people and systems of Power. Voices are needed to speak the difficult truth of the critical urgency of this issue as well as the need to significantly change how we live in order to reverse the human induced trend of Global Warming. The need for these voices to speak is now prior to it becoming a runaway planetary life ending catastrophic event.

    While I am shocked at the resistance of the public to accept the conclusions of scientific studies that Global Warming crisis is real and happening now, many scientists aren’t. As early as 1990, a number of scientists including 32 Nobel laureates concluded that it would take more than scientific evidence to convince people to act and so they issued an open letter/appeal to the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary leaders conference meeting in Moscow that year. The letter/appeal included statements such as:
    By their very nature these assaults on the environment were not caused by any one political group or any one generation. Intrinsically, they are transnational, transgenerational, and transideological. So are all conceivable solutions. To escape these traps requires a perspective that embraces the peoples of the planet and all the generations yet to come.
    Problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective, must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists, many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis, urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth.

    The appeal goes on to state:
    As with issues of peace, human rights and social justice, religious institutions can be a strong force here, too, in encouraging national and international initiatives in both the private and public sectors, and in the diverse worlds of commerce, education, culture and mass communications.
    The environmental crisis requires radical changes not only in public policy, but also in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example and leadership are able to influence personal conduct and commitment powerfully.

    The response of Religious leaders was impressive as 271 well known spiritual leaders from 83 countries acting as representatives of the major world religions signed on to the appeal. “Yet despite the appeal’s widespread support, little if any progress has been made on the issues it raises…”
    So for over 30 years, we have had international scientific consensus that human induced global warming is a crisis and for the last 20 years we have had world interfaith religious leaders’ commitment to this consensus and yet little if any progress has been made.

    For a complete reading of this Research Reflection paper “Dangerous Religious Ideas that affect our response to Global Warming” go to

  2. Lazarus says:

    The Vatican and many progressive churches see man made climate change as a real threat to people and the Earth which most say we have some sort of stewardship or responsibility for and they should be applauded for taking this position.

    But then we get this clown from Real Catholic TV on Youtube;

    I don’t know how Official this idiot is but Pope Benny should excommunicate him forthwith.

  3. Sunshine says:

    How about the Vatican revisit its position on birth control…

    From :

    Observing the Natural Law

    11. The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.” (11) It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (12)

    The last sentence of the paragraph is the clincher. Was this written after the so-called Flood they said destroyed the Earth? A little update for the 21st century, please…

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    “The pope’s encyclical in tandem with the working group’s report…”

    Bravo! You hit the nail on the head, Marta, or mainly so. I’ll add a few thoughts here.

    The issue, of course, is not whether the encyclical and this recent report are “meant to scare people”. They aren’t “meant to scare people”, of course, and I’m not sure how that idea got into the sentence. (And in any case, some religions often tell people, or imply, that they’ll go to Hell if they don’t believe X or do Y, so I’m not sure what it might mean to say that scaring is no part of the message?)

    Instead, the issue, I think, is a potential lack of clarity that could (and should) be clarified by the Vatican if the Vatican’s heart and soul are indeed in the right place regarding these matters.

    What I mean is this: The recent report (from the group put together by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and published under its banner) is clear on many fronts but not on others. In particular, the connection between what the report says and “the official Church viewpoint” is not clear. (Even in the initial AP story on the report, this gap or ambiguity is noted.) Thus, presently, it takes THE COMBINATION OF the Pope’s Encyclical AND the recent report (from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) to ascertain what the Church’s official stance (specifically regarding the moral imperative to address climate change) presumably is. In other words, as you put it, it’s vitally important to understand “the pope’s encyclical in tandem with the working group’s report”.

    So here’s my point: Given the vitally important nature of the issue (climate change, and the Church’s view regarding our moral responsibility to address it), the Church should spell out its official stance more clearly. It really shouldn’t be necessary for audiences to read the working group’s report, read the Encyclical, try to put two and two together, and have to make a few guesses along the way. If the Church’s heart and soul are in the right place, on this issue, it should be more than happy (although it will require some courage!) to make itself clear.

    Indeed, if the Encyclical means what it seems to say, and if the working group’s report means what it seems to say, then it would be a “sin” — a major moral lapse — for the Church NOT to make its view more accessible, easy to understand, and clear in one simple document or in clear statements by the Pope himself.

    Unless and until the Vatican puts its clear message in one place, there will be many people — perhaps most of them? — who will not notice the working group’s report or who will simply dismiss it as not reflecting the Church’s official view regarding Catholics’ moral responsibility regarding climate change. Too many people will not read the Encyclical or will simply refuse to put two and two together, unless it’s done for them. And we all know that the media will not go out of its way to publish a clear story.

    In short, I think that people of all stripes and denominations should (respectfully but clearly) call out for the Vatican to provide clarity, in one clear document, and in statements, regarding its view on Catholics’ moral responsibility to face and address climate change in order to secure a healthy, just, stable, humane, and sustainable future for humans, AND in order that humans respect and preserve “creation” for all life. The issue is far too important to leave it “split” between two documents. Indeed, it would be a sin to do so.

    Perhaps you, Marta, and CAP, could pose and prompt that question, and seek clarity from the Vatican and from Catholic channels here in the U.S. It’s a BIG issue, of course, not merely theoretical. As one example, Newt Gingrich (and his third wife) are, if I understand correctly, Catholic, and Newt will undoubtedly be running on a platform that claims to respect “religious values” and so forth. So it would be nice, and necessary, and practical, to have a clear understanding of the Vatican’s stance in relation to our moral obligation to address climate change. Will Newt not only disagree with the world’s scientists, but also with the Vatican, when it comes to his stance on climate change, even as he claims to be intelligent and acting in line with “religious values”? That would be interesting.

    Be Well,


  5. PAUL DONOHUE says:

    The YouTube videos are closest to the views of most Catholics I know.
    I think the Vatican is just covering their options. They are looking ahead and realize that when global warming becomes a serious problem, those institutions that promoted unlimited growth in resource use and population will be blamed.
    However, on an optimistic note, I hope the new vatican policy will influence conservative Catholics who are so influential in the U.S.

  6. paulm says:

    @1 thumbs up.

    But why hasn’t the message filters down to the local church and services. I go occasionally to catholic church services. No mention at all about the issue. No posters in lobies, no working groups, no mention in its schools, no communiqués. Silence!

    So the scilence speaks loudly. Maybe chaining but it’s too late for avoiding it now. It helps though.

  7. catman306 says:

    If the Pope wants to easy the suffering of future generations he’d reverse the Church’s position on birth control contraceptives, contraceptive devices, and contraceptive drugs. He’d recommend that governments worldwide provide them at no cost to ALL their citizens. He’d be seeking a very negative birth rate and he’d let all the Catholics of the world know that this was his goal, why it was his goal, and that it should be their goal. Having fewer humans in the next two generations will go a long way toward easing human suffering in the not too distant future.

  8. Snapple says:

    That Internet site called Real Catholics is some disinformation to fool Catholics about the position of the Vatican and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The site also trashes Protestants in a very intolerant way, which the Vatican and Catholic Church doesn’t do. There is also video with a faceless, cartoon “shadow priest.” I can’t find the shadow priest now. They seem to be making people register to see some of their stuff.

    The “Shadow Priest” gives the impression that a priest is talking, but it’s just a cartoon.

    Here the show makes some claims about Earth Day. He talks about an anonymous letter. He claims that global warming is a scam to limit population through abortion, sterilization, etc. I think we all know that the Catholic Church is against abortion. The Catholic Church is for protecting life.

    I think the speaker even says the Catholic Church is not really Catholic any more but pagan. He says not to give money if the pastor talks about Earth Day. Telling people not to give money is a way of intimidating the Vatican.

    This TV show actually undermines what the Vatican is saying about climate change by making it seem that the Bishops and Pastors are listening to “pagan” environmental groups.

    The Bishops listen to the Vatican.

    Marc Morano of the Climate Depot is promoting this “Real Catholic” TV. For example, he linked to this article.

    Morano had a link to another post that tried to minimize the importance of the recent Pontifical Academy workshop as if it was just a few people. Actually, the Pontifical Academy says this is hopefully only the first workshop on climate change.

    Below is a link to the Pontifical Academy (on the Vatican’s official site). The Academy describes its relationship with the Holy See. The Holy See “can draw” on the Academy’s information to make its policies. The Pontifical Academy is independent, but “can draw” doesn’t mean “must draw.”

    The Pontifical Academicians are science advisors to a government, like the National Academies. Governments get advice from many different advisers and perhaps competing constituencies. That said, the Pope accepts climate change and is providing an official forum for scientists to speak on these issues without being called anti-religious, communists, pagans, frauds, hoaxers, etc. The Catholic Church supports the search for truth, so they support science.

    I guess Inhofe, Cuccinelli and all the denialists will have to think twice about calling the scientists greedy liars who are trying to take over the world now.

    I hope climate scientists who are being attacked as they search for the truth about climate change will accept the protection of the Catholic Church whatever their personal convictions. I also hope that scientific people will not say that the Christians are against the climate scientists. That is propaganda that the denialists use to confuse Christians and make them believe that they shouldn’t accept climate change. The “scientific” communists used to say that people had to choose between science and religion. That just turned Soviet citizens against each other.

    The Vatican’s position is causing the Vatican to be attacked on the Internet by these so-called “real” Catholics (and that annoying Marc Morano). I think most Catholics would be put-off by this “Real Catholic TV” and that pesky Marc Morano. I know that the Vatican is very politically saavy and is not easily intimidated or bossed around.



    The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is an independent entity within the Holy See. Although its rebirth was the result of papal initiative, and though it is placed under the direct protection of the reigning Supreme Pontiff, the Academy defines its own goals with regard to its statuted aim:
    “…to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of epistemological problems relating thereto” (Statutes 1:2).
    Pius XII underlined the Academy’s freedom of inquiry in an address of 1940 to the Academicians:
    “To you noble champions of human arts and disciplines the Church acknowledges complete freedom in method and research…”.
    Since the deliberations and studies which it undertakes are not influenced by any one national, political or religious point of view, the Academy constitutes an invaluable source of objective information upon which the Holy See and its various bodies can draw.

  9. Snapple says:

    The so-called “Real Catholic TV” has a cite called CIA—atholic Investigative Agency. There is a tiny disclaimer at the bottom saying that this is not implying an affiliation with the government agency.

    Watch this video with the claims about the “global warming scare.”

    They don’t tell about the Pontifical Academy.

    They criticize Al Gore and mock the IPCC chief, Rajendra Kumar Pachauri; but Pachauri attended the Vatican workshop. His name is at the end of the workshop report.

    He discusses the Supreme Court ruling that CO2 is a pollutant and the role of the EPA in regulating CO2.

    He claims that scientists who claim that climate change is not happening are “muzzled” and don’t get grants.

    It is all the propaganda and not the position of the Vatican.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Australia the preferred voice of the Roman Catholic Church, at least as far as the Rightwing MSM is concerned, is Cardinal ‘Big George’ Pell. He is a favourite of the Right, a truly sadly ill-informed climate destabilisation denialist zealot (a great fan of Plimer-need one say more?), peppering his ignorant utterances with denunciations of Leftists etc. He reminds me of an ecclesiastical version of the ghastly Vaclav Klaus in a caftan. Like Klaus he is promoted endlessly by the Murdochean denialist apparatus (‘Fair and Balanced’)Quadrant magazine and the other organs of the Right. He was a favourite of Ratzinger’s patron Wojtyla. He is never upbraided by the Vatican for his denialism, but, in contrast, Bishop Morris of Toowoomba, was recently sacked by the Vatican for merely mentioning the possibility of women’s ordination. He did not advocate it, just suggested that it would have to be discussed, but that was enough to see him ousted, to the great delight of News Ltd and its claque of Rightwing Roman Catholic blatherers. These are a distinct sub-group of ‘The Fundament’s’ (aka The Australian)stable of Rightwing propagandists, but a rather extreme one. They worshiped Wojtyla, but seem a little perplexed by Ratzinger, so far. Funnily enough, Bishop Morris was widely admired by the laity for his sterling work addressing the priestly paedophilia epidemic, which most of the Church, even at the very highest levels, has spent years trying to sweep under the carpet.

  11. Sasparilla says:

    Slowly, the necessary tipping point of political action on climate change will be reached, this is a very necessary additional support group that has clearly layed out what they have found. Between every day experiences and additional announcements like this, we’ll get there.

    I just wish we weren’t so pressed for time, as its obvious we will get to action. Nice to have the PAS weighing in on this so deliberately and clearly.

  12. Snapple says:

    The New York Times has published an informative article titled “Green Smoke Is Sighted as Vatican Releases Glacier Report” (5-6-11) that describes the Pontifical Academy workshop.

    Reporter Lauren Morello interviewed several of the Academicians who participated in the Pontifical Academy workshop, such as V. Ramanathan. Academician Ramanathan’s research on Asia’s brown cloud is described in the A.P. Environmental Science book used by Catholic high school students.

    The NYT notes:

    “Atmospheric chemist V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — a member of the Pontifical Academy since 2004 — said he hopes the new report will have a lasting impact. His model is the papal academy’s 1981 statement on nuclear war, which condemned the use of nuclear weapons.

    ‘That was communicated to world leaders personally, in some cases by the pope,’ Ramanathan said. ‘Apparently it had a big impact on President Reagan.’

    The scientist, who has spent decades studying climate change, said working under the auspices of the Vatican also offered a fresh perspective.

    ‘I have never participated in any report in 30 years where the word ‘God’ is mentioned,’ Ramanathan said. ‘I think the Vatican brings that moral authority.'”—NYT (5-6-11)