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.
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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.