Friday, June 12, 2015

Climate Change and the Common Good

This is the title of the recent A Statement of the Problem and The Demand for Transformative Solutions produced by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on April 29. Despite its scholarly origin and title, it is actually a short document (about 8 pages of text), generally jargon-free, and so relatively readable by a general audience. Even so, I only just got around to looking at it this week - in anticipation of Pope Francis' much awaited encyclical on the environment, which is due to be issued within the next week.

(The Pontifical Academy of Sciences received its present name in 1936, but its origin dates back to 1603. It comprises 80 academic scientists appointed by the pope from around the world. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was founded by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1994 "to promote the study and progress of social, economic, political, and juridical sciences in the light of the social doctrine of the Church.")

As its title, Climate Change and the Common Good, suggests, this short statement is focused on the impact for future life on earth and human civilization of the scientifically describable phenomenon of the climactic changes currently being caused by human activity,in particular "the continued extraction and use of coal, oil, and gas in the 'business-as-usual' mode." In reasonably accessible language, Climate Change and the Common Good summarizes the underlying science - how the technological developments of the past two centuries have led us to this predicament, the damage done already, and the projected future consequences if our behavior doesn't change very soon. The warning is stark:

As early as 2100, there will be a non-negligible probability of irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts that may last over thousands of years, raising the existential question of whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond this century. Only a radical change in our attitude towards Creation and towards our fellow humans, complemented by transformative technological innovations, could reverse the dangerous trends that have already been set into motion inadvertently.

The report highlights the particularly pernicious contribution of modern economic systems and ideologies:

Our problems have been exacerbated by the current economic obsession that measures human progress solely in terms of Gross Domestic product (GDP) growth, a practice that could be justified only if natural capital were of infinite size. Present economic systems have also fostered the development of unacceptable gaps between the rich and the poor. ... The case for prioritizing climate-change mitigation depends crucially on accepting the fact that we have a responsibility not only towards those who are living in poverty today but also to generations yet unborn.

In the end, dealing with this devastating global problem requires a kind of personal and collective conversion of heart - the kind of conversion of heart which is an especially fitting topic, it seems to me, for a papal encyclical.

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