We are here in Panama,” said Naderev Sano, “to tell the world that climate change is a matter of life and death for the Philippines.” Mr. Sano, a member of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, was speaking at an October 2011 meeting in Panama City in preparation for the U.N. conference on climate change that convened in Durban, South Africa, the following month.
“Millions of Filipinos are already suffering, yet we are only seeing initial climate change impacts,” Mr. Sano said. “Progress must be made in the climate treaty negotiations.” An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is regularly battered by typhoons that many believe are growing in intensity because of climate change. A December storm, Typhoon Washi, left more than 1,200 dead and thousands homeless.
Although Catholics may not think of climate stabilization as a pro-life issue, it is increasingly clear that protecting the sanctity of life entails not only working to end abortion and the death penalty but also acting to conserve the earth’s climate and biosphere. The world’s most prestigious scientific bodies are in agreement that global warming is caused primarily by human beings and that its effects on our environment and economy will be far-reaching. In the short term, climate change will bring an increase in extreme weather events that threaten human populations and agricultural production. In the long term, it may be that the very viability of human civilization is at stake.
The climate is changing because of the greenhouse effect: heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere retain the emitted heat radiation reflected when the sun’s rays touch the earth’s surface. Were it not for some level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the planet would be too cold to support life as we know it. But our burning of fossil fuels, our razing of forests and our agricultural practices have elevated the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Prior to the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million. Today it is 391 ppm and rising by about two ppm each year. Between 1900 and 2009 the global average surface temperature rose 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
This increase may appear negligible. But the global climate is a complex reality. A small change in average temperature has ripple effects on ocean currents, precipitation patterns and other climate systems. A small temperature rise is already destabilizing the energy balance of the climate and spawning changes adverse to human beings and other species.
The effects of climate change can be seen in many areas, including the following:
Agriculture. Plants are very sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. Between 1980 and 2008, rising temperatures reduced total global wheat production by 5.5 percent. According to a study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature will reduce the global yields of wheat, rice and corn by an additional 10 percent. Some regions will be affected more severely than others. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projects that as early as 2020 grain yields in some African countries could be reduced by half.
Water. Around the world, sources of the fresh water necessary for life are diminishing. Last May, a working group commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences published a report on the retreat of the world’s mountain glaciers. The water flowing gradually from these majestic ice formations sustains rivers that bring life to valley ecosystems and human communities. But the European Alps have already lost 50 percent of their glacial mass, and thousands of small glaciers in the Himalayan-Tibetan region are also disintegrating. In Asia alone, over one billion people are in danger of losing their primary source of life-giving water.
Rising sea level. Melting glaciers and thermal expansion of ocean waters are contributing to a rise in sea level already documented by scientists. According to one estimate, over the course of this century we can expect a rise of three to six feet. At just three feet, half of the rice fields in Bangladesh would be submerged. Portions of major coastal cities including New Orleans, Tampa and Miami would be inundated.
Ocean decline. The oceans absorb more than a quarter of the carbon we emit through the combustion of fossil fuels; they thus become more acidic. This contributes to the decline of the coral reefs that provide habitat for a diverse array of sea creatures, including fish that are a source of protein for nearly one billion people. The warming of ocean waters has also been linked to a decline in the population of phytoplankton. These microscopic creatures produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and form the base of the entire marine food web.
Extreme weather events. There has been a marked increase in floods, droughts and other extreme weather events related to climate change. The increase in the intensity and duration of hurricanes, for example, has been correlated with rising sea surface temperature by Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mass extinctions. Species already suffering from habitat loss in a world dominated by humanity may not be able to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. A report published in Nature in 2004 concluded that a climate warming in the mid-range of current projections will by the year 2050 lead to the extinction of 15 percent to 37 percent of the species examined in the study. Biodiversity is essential to ecosystem resilience. And as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, the rich diversity of earthly creatures gives humanity a glimpse of the beauty and glory of God.
People who are fortunate enough to live in homes with central heating can quickly adjust their thermostats to raise or lower temperature. One might imagine that at some future point, we could cease our greenhouse gas emissions and similarly return the planet to its prior state. The global climate, however, cannot be so easily moderated. The carbon dioxide we have already added to the atmosphere and oceans will affect the earth for generations. Moreover, the earth’s climate is not a simple mechanical system but a complex of many interlocking, nonlinear relationships, including phenomena known by climate scientists as “positive feedbacks”—processes that take a small change in temperature and amplify it to exponential effect.
Consider, for example, the melting Arctic ice caps. These enormous white crests deflect solar radiation back into space, just as white clothing protects people from summer heat. As the ice caps melt, dark seawater that absorbs solar warmth is exposed. This elevates the temperature of the ocean water, which increases the melting of the ice caps, which decreases the polar deflection of solar radiation, and on it goes.
This kind of feedback process is also evident in the decline of the world’s forests. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and play an essential role in regulating global climate. Across the globe, forests are dying back. The underlying cause appears to be stress from rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns. When trees die, they stop the photosynthesis that removes carbon from the atmosphere, and as they decompose they release the carbon they have absorbed. This intensifies global warming, which increases the stress to forests, which kills more trees, which release more carbon and so forth.
Another feedback process is at work in Siberia, where an enormous expanse of frozen tundra is beginning to thaw. The tundra holds an estimated 70 billion tons of carbon, much of which would be released as methane, a gas 25 times more powerful in its heat-trapping effect than carbon dioxide.
These positive feedbacks are one reason that climate change is progressing more rapidly than first projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The rate of sea-ice melt in the Arctic, for example, is 30 years ahead of a prediction the I.P.C.C. made in 2007. Using both current observable reality and data from paleoclimate studies, an international group of scientists has recommended that to preserve a climate hospitable to life, carbon levels must be at no more than 350 ppm.
But atmospheric carbon dioxide is already at 391 ppm and rising. If we are to have at least a fighting chance of returning carbon dioxide levels to 350 ppm, an unprecedented level of global cooperation will be required to transform our sprawling fossil-fuel global economy to a network of efficient regional economies powered by noncarbon sources of energy. We must preserve surviving forests and replant denuded lands, replace agricultural practices that release methane and carbon into the atmosphere with practices that restore soils and sequester carbon, and intensify research and development of other means of removing carbon from the atmosphere.
The urgency of the transition to a new form of human civilization cannot be overstated. The warming generated by our own greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated by nonlinear feedback processes is pushing us ever closer to what scientists call “runaway climate change.” This ultimately could elevate atmospheric greenhouse gases to the level of the Cenozoic Era (65 million years B.C.), when the planet was ice-free and Homo sapiens did not exist. “We are interfering,” concludes science writer Fred Pearce, “with the fundamental processes that make Earth habitable.”
A U.N. Human Development Report in 2007-8 concluded: “There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that the world is moving towards the point at which irreversible ecological catastrophe becomes unavoidable.... There is a window of opportunity for avoiding the most damaging climate change impacts, but that window is closing.”
A Climate for Life
Unlike abortion and the death penalty, climate change is not an intentional act that ends the life of another human being. It is the unintented outcome of the industrial and agricultural processes that have accompanied our economic development. As early as 1979, however, scientists testified to Congress about the possible consequences of climate change, and our inaction is already taking the lives of vulnerable human beings. In 2009, a study conducted by the Global Humanitarian Forum found that climate change was already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year, the suffering of 325 million people and economic losses of over $100 billion. Over 90 percent of those persons most severely affected were in developing countries that have contributed least to global carbon emissions.
In the coming decades, climate change can bring deadly famine, displacement and disease to large sectors of the human population and spawn mass extinctions of other species. In the long term, the climate could change so radically that the earth could no longer support human civilization. In this sense, caring for the climate and the biosphere is a paramount pro-life issue.
“How long will countless people have to go on dying,” lamented Cardinal óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga in a homily at a Mass during the U.N. conference in Durban, “before adequate decisions are taken?” The cardinal is president of Caritas Internationalis and a native of Honduras, where extreme weather events have already decimated the crops, livestock and homes of many. According to a Caritas spokesperson, Patrick Nicholson, the agreement in Durban to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol falls far short of the actions that scientists believe are necessary to prevent widespread droughts and the mass migrations of peoples who will be displaced from regions where food production has collapsed.
The failure of the governments represented at Durban to reach a stronger agreement makes ecclesial action even more urgent. The Vatican has installed solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI auditorium and declared the intention to make Vatican City the first carbon-neutral state. In the United States, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change is supported by the bishops’ conference and other Catholic bodies. The coalition is leading multiple initiatives, including the Catholic Climate Covenant, which emphasize the importance of solidarity with those whose lives are threatened or diminished by climate change.
Participants in this covenant pledge, in the spirit of St. Francis, to educate themselves, pray, change energy-intensive patterns of living and lobby for policies that will address the climate crisis. These essential initiatives can be strengthened by recognizing that climate change is a life issue that merits our attention and inclusion in the annual Respect Life programs in October and the National Prayer Vigil for Life in January. We should also pursue new pro-life initiatives specific to the climate crisis, like legal action to hold our government accountable for its repeated failure to protect the earth for generations unborn.
Our imperiled planet needs the distinctive paschal witness the Catholic community can offer. In an Easter address in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stated that at this time of ecological and economic crisis, “it is urgent to rediscover grounds for hope.... Christ is looking for men and women who will help him to affirm his victory using his own weapons: the weapons of justice and truth, mercy, forgiveness and love.”