Turkson's visit to Ohio State a watershed event for climate discourse, academics say

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Sharon Abercrombie

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When a prominent cardinal visits a city, his agenda is usually predictable: preside at a liturgy and speak to the Catholic faithful in various diocesan settings. Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, will keep to that schedule during his upcoming four-day stay in Columbus, Ohio, which began Friday. 

But Turkson, one of the lead drafters for Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” will also break a bit from that mold. As part of his Ohio stay, he was scheduled Monday to attend a college science fair at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, and follow that with a tour of the research facilities of the campus’ Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

The Byrd Center is internationally known for its studies around melting glaciers as evidence of climate change. According to the center’s website, head researcher Lonnie Thompson and his team’s observations in the past three decades “confirm that glaciers around the world are melting and provide clear evidence that the warming of the last 50 years is now outside the range of climate variability for several millennia, if not longer.”

Turkson was to meet with some of those researchers during his visit. Later Monday night, he will give a public address on global sustainability at the campus’ Mershon Auditorium and then engage in a fireside chat with Ohio State president Michael Drake, who issued the official invitation.

Two Catholics who teach and are involved in educational outreach at the university regard Turkson’s visit as a watershed event.  

Greg Hitzhusen, an assistant professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, said it is a major happening that an official who is one of the faces of climate change at the Vatican will be engaging in public discourse with the president of a land grant university. Turkson's time in Columbus is one of two U.S. stops the cardinal will make this week, part of a full slate of encyclical-related events taking place through Saturday. 

“This is the kind of dialogue Francis is talking about in his encyclical -- calling everyone to engage in honest discussion,” Hitzhusen told NCR, adding that Turkson asked for the science fair students’ emails so that he can keep up with their future work.

Jason Cervenec, director of outreach and education at the Byrd Center, remarked that “Francis has kicked the door open pretty hard” to a greater awareness of the need for earth care.

Cervenec, a lifelong Catholic, regards the pope’s recent visit to the U.S. as bringing greater attention to the encyclical’s release. Catholics who have hesitated to become active in the environmental movement because they’ve been waiting for permission from church higher-ups no longer have a valid reason for dragging their feet, he said.

In the weeks leading up to Turkson’s visit, both Cervenec and Hitzhusen have participated in several events, including a panel discussion on the encyclical at the campus’ St. Thomas More Newman Center. The Newman Center, along with the School of Environment and Natural Resources and other Ohio State departments, partnered to bring the Ghanaian cardinal to Columbus. 

Hitzhusen and Cervenec both see how their public careers resonate with their private faith lives. Cervenec and his wife are members of Interfaith Power and Light, as well as Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity (BREAD), a Columbus-area interfaith organization that advocates for local social justice reforms. Although the latter group has not yet addressed climate and environmental issues, he considers BREAD the type of platform where people can put their beliefs about creation care into action.

Cervenec’s work at the Byrd Polar Research Center puts him in touch with approximately 12,000 visitors a year. “People in the faith groups ask the most probing questions about climate change,” he told NCR. “They come with open minds and make the connections.”

Hitzhusen, who in 2007 founded Ohio Interfaith Power and Light and serves as its board chair, teaches an undergraduate class on religion and environmental values in America. The sole humanities course listing in the School of Environmental and Natural Resources, the class typically capped at 30 students in its first four years, he said, but an expected enrolment increase has him anticipating as many as 80 students this spring.

The class has proven challenging to a few who are unfamiliar with religious ideas, Hitzhusen said, but by and large, most “appreciate the opportunity to wrestle with bigger questions.

“They value the chance to take religious and spiritual perspectives seriously, including their own. Some say this is the first course that really helped them reflect on fundamental questions that shape their views,” he said.

The class brings other advantages, he said. “In terms of the environment, scientific information alone isn’t sufficient to guide policy or choices or action -- people’s values determine what they think they should do with this scientific information.”

Roughly 80 percent of the planet’s people identify with some religious tradition, said Hitzhusen, so that “means that religion has a fairly ubiquitous role in shaping values.” Given these facts, he continued, “It would be odd for a secular university to ignore religious influences if it claims to provide its students with an understanding of the world, or of environmental issues, polices and solutions.”

About five years ago, Cervenec spent six months in Mumbai, India, on a Fulbright teachers’ exchange. The life-transforming experience exposed him to the specter of 1 million people living in a one square mile area along the country’s western coast, with air pollution high and water access often limited to two hours a day.

“I’d blow my nose and the handkerchief would be black,” he recalled upon completing a jog.

In addition, Cervenec’s time in India helped him consider the lives of climate refugees, whether those he encountered from Bangladesh or others yet to mobilize. Increased access to reports and statistics about their plights, both present and future, he hopes, will lead to greater mobilization on the part of those who can help. But as he often tells social justice and environmental groups he addresses as a private citizen, information can only go so far.

“Science informs what you know, but it is your faith that will prompt you to do something,” Cervenec said. 

[Sharon Abercrombie is a frequent contributor to Eco Catholic.]

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