Climate Change – 1

When a member of Second Sight blog asked me to write about climate change my first reaction was that it was an enormously important question for Catholics to consider. The second was that I knew little about the subject other than what anyone might read in the casual press. Fortunately, bloggers were very generous with their advice and their leads to fuller information.

They were almost too generous. I found myself in a maelstrom of studies, papers and controversy. Controversy was the immediate difficulty: there are a large number of climate change sceptics (including climatologists) and their arguments appear forceful. On the other hand, each view was countered by opposing, and equally expert, responses. Now, I love an argument but it is of little use to me when I am not a climatologist and therefore unable to assess respective merits.

So I have settled as my primary source the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2007. These reports can only be made at intervals since it is new observations over the passage of time which enable updating. Since the summary is over 70 pages, and I have had to mine deeper than that in several instances, you will understand that my account is broad-brush, and majors on questions rather than answers.

I start with an assumption that climate change is occurring, and will continue into the future. Its effects will be extremely damaging in many parts of the world. A major cause of the change is the industrial revolution, the emissions of which are the prime source of the greenhouse effect. This might be summarised by thinking of the atmosphere as a one-way filter: it allows heat in but prevents enough heat escaping. The evidence for the effects of human activity is not conclusive but extremely strong (in the order of 90 per cent). Since that assessment further data and new considerations have emerged from reputable sources.

Some of the worst effects may be mitigated through various actions such as reducing emissions or developing ways of giving protection to those affected. I hope to support and explore the evidence for this in future columns.

Why is this an important moral issue? The answer lies in a single word: charity. At my age I can expect to be dead before the effects of climate change bite. But Hugh, Tommy, Robert, William. Elé, Zak, Rachel, Liam, Abigail, Edmund, Sebastian, Matt, Alexander and Natasha will certainly experience them. I name my grandchildren to remind me that we are talking about real people. But our love extends beyond our own families, and remembers particularly countries and cultures likely to be worst affected.

But we can look behind the dominant peak of charity and also recall that Adam was given responsibility for the whole of the created world. We have inherited his mandate to act on God’s behalf. Beyond that, we have St Paul’s strange words (Rom 8:22): “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now…” As Fr Durrwell argued, material creation, with its absence of harmony and order, is incorporated in the Resurrection, and everything that we do to restore its harmony is grist for the mill of the Last Judgment.

Reviewing what readers and bloggers have sent to me, I find a prevailing emphasis on the virtue of prudence. Prudence in following the best evidence, even if it is not conclusive. Prudence in reviewing the interlocking effects of steps which might be taken to avoid the worst global warming or to mitigate its effects. Here, for example, the point was made that there is an obvious conflict between assisting developing countries in their growth towards industrialisation, and the greater level of emissions which will accompany this.

Consideration was given to whether there should be more focus on developing carbon free sources of energy or on personal behaviour. Does, for example, the need to change all our incandescent light bulbs, or charging gas-guzzlers more for street parking, make the whole cause unpopular, while contributing only minutely to a solution? Conversely, does the satisfaction we may experience, say, through recycling rubbish make us feel virtuously involved and readier to make the larger sacrifices which may well be called for?

One interesting, but controversial, suggestion is that population growth in itself will be a major contributor. Indeed, a recent report claims that more widespread family planning is a better investment (by a factor of five) than developing carbon-free economies. The claim is made that, currently, an individual in the West will cause 160 times the emissions of an Ethiopian. This appears to me such a myopic solution, defying any attempt at prudence, that it requires closer examination in due course.

And writing about “due course” leads me to consider future columns on this subject. The UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December looms, and we should inform ourselves and be active in discussion. I shall only write on this from time to time because variety must rule. But I think I should look with you more closely at the strength of the evidence that climate change is largely man-made, and try to quantify this. Methods of reduction and mitigation must be reviewed, bearing in mind their side-effects. The likely effects on different part of the world must be considered, and good and bad scenarios taken into account.

O     O     O

It was Tim, a regular contributor to Secondsight, who suggested that we should look at the issue of climate change. So it’s thanks to him – and all the others who sent in or posted questions and points. As I see the schedule at the moment, my next column on this will be in four weeks, and the third four weeks later. This will bring us up close to the crucial Copenhagen meeting where we will see what the major countries propose to do. So do comment on the columns as they arrive – whether you approve of the line I take, or disapprove. Then we will all be in a good position to take an educated view when we discuss the question with our friends.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Climate Change. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Climate Change – 1

  1. Fariam says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how little attention is given to agriculture in relation to the environment, particularly with regard to the massive meat consumption in Western culture and modern factory farming.

    The most serious environmental problems of our time are all directly linked to eating meat.
    Global warming.
    Overexploited natural resources.
    Wasted land.
    Water and air pollution.

    A 2006 United Nations report summarized the devastation caused by the meat industry by calling it “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” The report recommended that animal agriculture “be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity”.

    According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than a half-million cars off U.S. roads.

    Eating your way to a smaller “Ecological Footprint”

    It is also amazing how many people are isolated from the church because of a perceived lack of strong leadership regarding animal welfare. It is an issue which is being hijacked by those wishing to attack Christianity – with some justification at times it must be said.

    Chanigng meat eating habits – even one day a week, though preferably more) – provide a simple and direct way of addressing many inter-related environmental issues, and it is an easy concrete step for people to take – IF the will is there… It is also very much in line with traditonal Catholic doctrine in that it would directly address gluttony, penance and charity!

  2. Vincent says:

    The problem I see with Fariam’s suggestion is that I can’t open a newspaper without reading of one activity or another which would, it is claimed, do wonders to hold off climate change. It’s all piecemeal, isn’t it? I don’t know what the key changes are, and I don’t know how effective they will be – and at what cost. I don’t mean necessarily cash cost but costs to standards of living in different countries etc. Will the Copenhagen meeting make this clear, or will that be largely guesswork?

  3. tim says:

    Yes – who do you believe?

    One possible source of information is David MacKay’s book – “Sustainable Energy – without the Hot Air: available on the Web at – you read it on the Web, or can download the whole thing if you like. MacKay is an FRS (“the authority, Sir, of all these great men…) and he has done some interesting sums on what would make a difference. He rates fairly highly (among other things) giving up air travel; but not unplugging your mobile phone charger. Vegetarianism (6 days out of 7) saves between a third and a quarter of what giving up flying would do – not inconsiderable. And presumably it wouldn’t affect the Third World badly.

  4. RMBlaber says:

    I cannot imagine who these climatologists are whom you claim to be ‘climate change sceptics’, Quentin. They sound a bit like Flat Earthers to me.
    The current seasonally adjusted atmospheric CO2 concentration is 387.63 ppmv ( That is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years(
    We are adding to this amount by 31.5 billion tonnes per annum (2008; source: Given a world population of just under 6.79 billion (source: US Census Bureau International Database), that amounts to ~4.64 tonnes per capita pa.
    Even if we could ignore all the other long-term greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, which we can’t, there is simply no way we can discount the effect on the climate of all this extra CO2.
    The mean annual global surface temperature has risen by 0.7 degrees C over pre-industrial (1750) levels, and the mean annual surface temperature of the European land area has increased by 1.3 degrees C over pre-industrial levels (source: If no action is taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the EU’s target of restricting the temperature rise to 2 C will be exceeded at some point between 2040-60. It may not sound like much, but the consequences will be dire, and not just for the people of Tuvalu and Bangladesh.

  5. Juliana says:

    Therefore, this is an excellent time for the Church to re-instate the Friday fast day of NO MEAT. Maybe they could add another day such as Wednesday and suggest also that meat would be a good thing to give up in Lent too.

    I never understood why the Catholic Church gave up on Friday Fast Day. It is good for the environment as well as for one’s health.

    How can we get this Vat II relaxation reversed?

  6. Daisy says:

    re Juliana. There are two things at least we can learn from the Muslims. The first is to take seriously:Thou shalt not take the name of God in vain. And the second is that ritual, common, expressions of a religious community greatly strengthen that community in its own eyes as well as the eyes of others. Friday abstinence was a great loss. I would love to see it return.

  7. Superview says:

    It’s not difficult to eat less meat, and having seen last week an average leg of lamb in a Provencal supermarket at 35 euros it could get easier. But then pity the diminishing fish in our seas. We in the developed world could start by eating less and wasting less food. As a child we were chastised for ‘feeding the devil’ if we left food on our plate, yet now it is literally wasted on an industrial scale due to excessively precautionary food safety legislation and the resulting fear of prosecution. I have to say though I do not share Daisy’s nostalgia for the Friday abstinence with the penalty for non-observance. In the world we live in we hardly need to add to the list of invented rule-based sins. But I could support a greater recognition by the Christian community (if there be such a thing) that not wasting food is a virtue.

  8. Horace says:

    The last time this subject came up I posted a note about the work of my erstwhile colleague Stephen Salter who for many years has been trying to promote the use of wave power, and more recently a scheme to provide ‘global cooling’ which could buy time for the development of other kinds of non-polluting power generation.

    The following is an extract from a PhD thesis written by a nephew of my wife, Karl Sassenberg which I think puts the case splendidly:-

    “Why pursue Nuclear Fusion?
    When commercial nuclear Fusion power stations become available, the world will benefit from a clean virtually limitless source of energy.

    Currently, the world demand for power is being satisfied by fossil fuels, renewable energy resources and nuclear fission power stations. Of these, fossil fuels have a short remaining lifetime, a detrimental effect on the environment and as supply diminishes, costs will soar. Renewable energy sources on the other hand, are in theory endless and clean, but expectations and some implementations are often short-sighted. While renewable energy sources are a vital component of any future energy strategy, they can not possibly meet the needs of a world with an ever increasing demand for energy.

    Nuclear power promises a solution to the world’s energy demand with high energy output and extremely large fuel reserves. Across the world nuclear fission power plants are supplying energy to power businesses and homes. On the surface it would appear that a solution has been found, but lessons from history have made it painfully clear that this method of releasing nuclear power must be respected and dealt with responsibly.

    So, nuclear fission is currently only able to deliver on half of its initial promise. The problem stems from its two prominent drawbacks, the possibility of a dangerous run-away chain reaction, and the proportionality of long half-life radioactive waste production to energy output.

    In contrast, a nuclear fusion reactor will power down if confinement is lost, radioactive waste produced has a short half-life and the amount of waste is inversely proportional to the lifetime of reactor vessel materials. Therefore, any drawbacks pale in comparison, while providing a plentiful and potentially endless source of energy. “

  9. Horace. nuclear fusion is an interesting subject. Could you explain for us any technical or cost difficulties in using it for power generation. Why are governments currently planning fission plants rather than fusion? I understand that major investment is going into fusion research, but we hear little about it.

  10. Horace says:

    I am afraid that I cannot be of much help.

    I also had been wondering why governments were planning fission rather than fusion plants. Last week I was in Ireland to attend the conferring and congratulate Karl on his PhD. He gave me a copy of his thesis to read and I felt that the quotation above was highly relevant.

    Karl has been working at the Max-Plank-Institut für Plasmaphysik, Garching bei Muenchen, Germany, for about the last five years and should know what he is talking about.

    Frankly I understand less than a quarter of this thesis and haven’t been able to read the whole of it (even superficially) yet! The work concerns Alfvén Eigenmodes (don’t ask) and is clearly both theoretical and experimental.

    It seems clear that sooner or later this kind of work will lead to a practical fusion power source but exactly when is anybody’s guess.

    Please God this will happen in time – perhaps with the help of work like that being carried out by Steve and his ilk – to avert the worst effects of climate change being produced by CO2 emissions.

    Meantime the reading from Joel which featured at Friday’s Mass seems appropriate!

  11. Iona says:

    Last week I went to a public meeting where an economist from Brazil was explaining the relationship between meat-eating in the UK and destruction of rainforest in Brazil. It seems that rainforest is being cleared in order to grow soy which is imported to the UK to feed cattle etc. which the human population then eats. British farmers are apparently given subsidies so that they can buy the imported soy to feed their animals. The Brazilian was not arguing that we should give up meat-eating, but that the UK government should subsidise British farmers to grow their own animal feedstuffs, instead of subsidising them to buy soy from Brazil.
    The question was asked, if soy growing in Brazil ceased, would the land then be returned to rainforest? – The answer seemed to be possibly not, since crops to produce ethanol (alternative to petrol) are now being grown in quantity as well, so maybe the Brazilians would just grow more of these.
    It’s like air bubbles under wallpaper, – push it down in one place and it comes up somewhere else.

  12. RMBlaber says:

    Nuclear fusion power generation is a dream that has been pursued at great expense since the 1950s – without success. The problem is that no-one has yet managed to get a nuclear fusion reactor to produce more power than it takes to initiate a nuclear fusion reaction in the first place!
    A nuclear fusion reactor consists of a device called a TOKAMAK (a Russian acronym – the design is Russian), which is designed to hold a plasma – a hot, ionised gas – within the confines of a magnetic field, generated by electromagnets. The plasma must not come into contact with the walls of the confinement chamber, or the whole apparatus would suffer catastrophic damage, to the possible detriment of the operators.
    The gas in question is usually deuterium – heavy hydrogen. Stripped of its electron, a deuterium ion carries a positive charge, and consists of a proton and a neutron. The gas must be heated up to millions of degrees C, and that takes a lot of energy.
    At those temperatures, the temperatures found in the core of the Sun, the electric force of repulsion between the deuterium ions is overcome, and they are able to fuse together to make nuclei of helium. When this happens, there is a release of energy, but so far – as I said – no-one has managed to achieve an energy output that even manages to equal the energy input, let alone exceed it.
    In comparison, nuclear fusion bombs are quite easy to make, ironically enough. Edward Teller, the ‘Father of the H Bomb’ (and model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove), was always convinced that his ‘Super’ bomb could be made once the nuclear fission bomb had been achieved, and so it proved. You simply wrap an atomic bomb with a shell made of lithium hydride and lithium deuteride – and bang! You have an H-bomb.
    Millions of pounds, dollars, euros, yen and roubles have been spent over the years trying to achieve the goal of peaceful, civil use of nuclear fusion power. The scientists are still trying, but they haven’t got there yet, and there is no suggestion of them succeeding any time soon. At some point, the politicians will decide that enough is enough, and pull the plug.
    What the Sun can do easily and naturally seems to be just about impossible for us to do here on Earth – unless we are doing it for destructive, rather constructive, purposes. Is God trying to tell us something there?

  13. RMBlaber says:

    One further word on the subject of fusion. Some years ago, two chemists, by the names of Pons and Fleischman, made a startling claim to the massed world media that they had achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature, using nothing more than a simple laboratory desktop electro-chemical device that an A Level chemistry student, familiar with electrolysis, could set up in minutes.
    Understandably, many were sceptical. However, laboratories around the world immediately set out to try and replicate their results. They failed.
    This was not because they were incompetent, but because they were highly competent, and very thorough, and because the Pons-Fleischman claims were complete nonsense to begin with.
    Among other things, they were claiming to achieve fusion without generating radiation, as well as without needing high, or very high, temperatures. If the latter is unlikely, the former is even more unlikely, and the combination of the two is virtually impossible.
    Their claims can be dismissed on a priori grounds, however. There is quite simply no way of achieving fusion without overcoming the force of repulsion between the positively charged protons in the nuclei to be fused. That requires energy – a lot of it (>1 MeV [million electron-volts] for two protons one Compton wavelength apart).
    It would be marvellous if the world were so ordered that cold fusion were a real possibility – but it isn’t, and it’s not. If it were, there would probably be all sorts of other things that would go wrong – life itself might not be possible. The Universe is very finely constructed so that life is possible, and it may well be that cold fusion is ruled out because life is ruled in. I think I prefer things the way they are!

  14. RMBlaber says:

    My apologies to Mr Martin Fleischmann for having misspelt his name. Messrs Stanley Pons and Fleischmann, the former of the University of Utah, the latter of the University of Southampton, made their announcement on the 23rd March, 1989. For details, see

  15. tim says:

    I’m a little disappointed with the discussion to date. Where are all the climate-change deniers? Quentin might feel that the catholic ethos of this blog encourages too much conformity. Perhaps I can stir the pot a bit.

    The trouble here is that we are faced with pronouncements from authority that the vast majority of us have no way of checking. We don’t like to question this authority, partly for fear of looking stupid (in my case, at least), partly because we worry that we may actually be doing harm by encouraging people to believe what is false and so fail to do what they should. Certainly the attitude of believers (in climate change) is that ‘error has no rights’. Try raising questions on a believer’s blog, and the chances are you will be ‘flamed’ as a heretic in the pay of the oil companies. This doesn’t help genuine doubters.

    The convinced denier thinks it’s all a ramp, promoted by scientists who want to publish dramatic findings, and supported (in the UK) by the BBC, who think that it is a public duty to help convert the public. Between the true believers and the demonic horde of deniers there is however a third group, who accept (sometimes reluctantly) that climate change is happening, but question if the right solutions are being proposed. Science is no doubt objective and exact (even when forecasting the weather 50 years ahead?) but the solutions are economic and political. Here the views of physical scientists are less authoritative. All the emphasis is put on mitigation (cutting down CO2). Why not put more on adaptation (coping with the expected changes)? We will clearly need to adapt in any case – it can’t all be done by mitigation.

    I intend to put some doubters’ questions up on this blog at some stage (expecting to receive some civil reassurance), but this contribution is already overlong. One thing that bothers me is the over-enthusiasm of believers. An Archbishop was in the ‘Herald’ recently claiming (if I remember right) that hundreds of thousands of people were *already* dying because of climate change. I don’t believe that can be supported. Similarly another contributor suggested that even if climate change wasn’t happening, cutting down CO2 would cut cancers. I don’t think that’s right either. Exaggeration in a cause believed good is understandable, but wrong, and can also be counter-productive.

  16. Tim, I very much hope that no one holds back on the subject of climate change through some kind of Catholic conformity. The reliability, or otherwise, of the predictions is a scientific issue. but, even if we accept them, and start to look at what prudence and charity demand, there is plenty of scope for disagreement. And the more we argue out our disagreements the more valuable the Blog becomes. So bring on the sceptics’ points, whether you personally support them or not.
    My next CH column will be looking in more detail on the claimed causes of climate change and its timescales. This might be a good occasion to raise the problems you mention.

  17. tim says:

    (almost no refererences are given: for whatever is challenged, I will try to provide references).

    1. It is accepted that CO2 is a ‘greenhouse gas’. It absorbs heat that would otherwise be radiated into space. More CO2 (other things being equal) thus means a hotter earth.
    2 But “other things being equal” is a significant qualification. Other factors affect earth’s temperature as well: solar activity; orbit eccentricity; cloud cover; and so on. And CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas. Water accounts for about 2/3rds of the current greenhouse effect (Wikipedia says). There are complex feedbacks, not completely understood. There is also Le Chatelier’s principle, that systems tend to react to compensate (at least in part) for imposed changes.
    3. Future temperatures are not as predictable as, say, planetary orbits. ‘Models’ are used. How these models are constructed is too difficult to follow for most laymen (certainly this one). But the name is significant. Models are embodiments of ideas, and depend on their inputs. The confidence in their output must depend on the confidence in their input, both of facts and relationships.
    3. Is it not the case (maybe I’m wrong about this) that in the geological past levels of CO2 were sometimes considerably higher than they are today? Nevertheless they subsequently declined. How did that happen? Nature must have adapted (of course, this might have involved loss of species, and it would be sad if this time we were the species in question).
    4. Some of the evidence for ‘climate change’ seems dodgy. Take the famous ‘Hockey Stick’. I remind you that this is an ice-hockey stick, laid flat on the ice with its blade projecting upwards at an angle. Then the long straight handle represents the global temperature over the last thousand years, unchanging up to the 20th century: and the projecting blade is the temperature rise in the 20th century. The trouble with this is that (if correct) it wipes out both the Medieval Warm Period around 1200 (when wine was widely grown in England and the Norseman were colonising Greenland) and the Little Ice Age around 1700 when ice fairs were held on the frozen Thames. Were these not real? The ‘hockey stick’ had been attacked (on this basis, and on statistical grounds) and defended (with certain modifications): as a minimum, there is an impression that the evidence was not sufficiently scrutinised before being relied on. Noteworthy also is the fact that average temperatures have not so far continued to increase in the 21st century (has the tip of the hockey stick been reached?). Of course, this may just be a statistical blip – but it was not what was predicted.
    5. Some of the predictions about the likely effects of climate change seem dodgy. Not all changes would be negative. A rise in global temperature of 2°C would increase the number of human deaths from overheating. Equally, it would reduce deaths from cold: on balance, showing a net decrease in mortality. If we go on growing the same crops we’re growing at the moment, yields will fall: however, if we continue to improve crops by breeding (as we have for the last half-century) yields could keep pace or even increase (CO2 is a fertiliser of plant growth). The idea that the range of infectious diseases will increase is challenged. Malaria is primarily a disease of poor countries, not hot countries: there was an epidemic at Archangel within the last 100 years. Experts disagree about the level of likely sea level rises (I can’t follow the arguments).
    6. There must be a level of uncertainty about the predictions, even if majority scientific opinion supports them. This might not matter, if we were not being asked to make very considerable sacrifices relying on them, well before they happen. ‘We’, here, means the whole world. The rich world would give up more in absolute terms: the poor world much more proportionately. Sacrificing growth means more of the poor go hungry longer. Of course, better to be poor, hungry and survive than to drown with a full stomach: but we do need to be sure as possible that these are the real alternatives.

    It may well be that the expert majority is right. No doubt, convinced of the justice of their cause, and its vital importance, they are reasonably anxious that we should share their faith. There is an analogy with Pascal’s wager. In the end, when we have examined the arguments, it may come down to the trust we put in prophets, and in reasonable authority: a familiar situation, perhaps, for Catholics.

  18. Iona says:

    My understanding is that glaciers and polar ice-caps are shrinking, and that there is no snow on Mount Kilimanjaro, though there used to be. Since ice radiates the sun’s energy back out into space, it may be expected that a “runaway” effect is being established, with the heating of the earth’s surface accelerating and melting the ice still faster.

    Deaths which can be attributed to global warming include deaths through heatstroke during heatwaves, and deaths through drowning, disease and loss of property and livelihood resulting from flooding which in turn results from changing weather patterns.

    Malaria epidemic at Archangel?
    So why don’t we have it here? – we have enough mosquitoes (I’ve been bitten twice in the last few days). – I’m not doubting you, Tim, just curious.

  19. tim says:

    Iona, thanks. The snows of Kilimanjaro have been receding since the 19th century – well before most other effects associated with ‘global warming’ . Some scientists say it is not an ambient temperature effect (given that the temperature up there is still below 0ºC) but due to ‘complex interacting factors’ (yeah, right!). Lots of glaciers are shrinking – no doubt due to GW – others are growing (in Norway, Alaska and New Zealand) – presumably not. Certainly glaciers and snow will reflect some heat back into space, so fewer of them will reflect less – but this all needs to be quantified. The assumptions needed to quantify it might lead to a variety of different answers.

    As to mosquitos, I’m not sure. It may be that you need a good-sized population of mozzies to support the vector. The great progress against malaria was made through draining swamps and DDT. It could have been wiped out in Sri Lanka, if we hadn’t become paranoid about the ecological dangers. DDT is now being used in Africa, but still under restrictions – and resistance to it (in mosquitos) has evolved.

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