Activists, skeptics debate at Vatican conference on climate change

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rome

A Vatican conference on climate change this week is giving voice not only to scientists and politicians urging aggressive action on global warming, but also to prominent skeptics who doubt that human activity is actually responsible for rising global temperatures.

Though some participants beforehand had worried that the meeting would be “hijacked” by the skeptics, what seems to have unfolded instead on day one is a lively exchange between activists and doubters.

Moreover, Vatican officials warned that environmental protections must not come at the expense of economic development for the world’s poorest countries, or be used to promote birth control or abortion.

In one indication that some Vatican officials are wary of aligning the church uncritically with the secular environmental movement, L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, today wrote that “the Holy See does not intend simply to amplify the alarms about the climate which are launched daily by international organizations or individual governments, despite the fact that there are considerable pressures in this direction.”

Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, likewise warned against the dangers of “alarmism,” and said the public “is too often disoriented” in regard to environmental issues.

The two-day, closed-door summit of more than seventy scientists, politicians, activists and church officials is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The title of the event is “Climate Change and Development.”

Yesterday, the gathering heard from both politicians and scientists convinced that human intervention in the environment, above all the release of massive levels of carbon dioxide, have contributed to the phenomenon known as “global warming.”

German scientist Stefan Rahmsdorf, for example, who was among the 2,500 scientists who contributed to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, argued that “the increase in carbon gas corresponds to increases in the global temperature, and this is 99 percent proven scientifically.”

Rahmsdorf said that at least since 1994, the data for global warming seems clear. Since that year, there has been no increase in solar activity, yet a notable increase in planetary temperatures – suggesting that human activity is responsible.

David Miliband, the British Minister for the Environment, argued that “modes of living, working and travel must change” in light of the dangers of climate change. He proposed a system of taxation for carbon emissions that would, over the long run, result in changes in production methods.

On the other hand, Italian scientist Antonino Zichichi argued that “based on the present state of knowledge, we cannot exclude that human beings have little or nothing to do with global warming.” Zichichi said that public debate over climate change has exaggerated what science is actually in a position to assert, as if “we can explain the climate of the past, present and future. Nothing is further from the truth.”

American scientist Craig Idso, who directs a “Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change” based in Arizona, went much further, arguing that the release of CO2 is actually beneficial to the environment.

"Not only is it not a problem, it is actually a resource,” Idso told L’Avennire. “All this hysteria about the anthropogenic causes of global warming have created an image of CO2 as pollution, or as tantamount to pollution. That’s simply absurd: our very life on earth depends on CO2, and it’s thanks to CO2, combined with water, that plants grow. An increase in CO2 is therefore beneficial if we think about vegetation, or about the capacity to increase agricultural production. That would mean an important savings of water. In the future, it could be the true solution to the problem which is before the eyes of all, which is preserving the agricultural land necessary to satisfy an increasing need for food of a growing population, without putting ecosystems at risk.”

Like Zichichi, Idso argued that human activity has had little impact on global warming. He argued that the highest temperatures recorded in the last 100 years were between 1930 and 1940, before the era of massive carbon emissions.

Monsignor Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Council for Justice and Peace, warned that environmental protection must not become a pretext for either of two outcomes: blocking economic development for the world’s poorest countries, refusing to allow them to develop technologies that the affluent north continues to use; or reproductive policies aimed at limiting population growth which would advocate birth control or abortion.

The conference is designed as a “sounding board” for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and is not expected to produce any specific policy recommendations.

John Carr, secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace, is representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the conference.

In a recent letter to Senator Jeff Bingaman, chair of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, chair of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy, outlined the conference’s position on climate change.

“The traditional virtue of prudence suggests that we do not have to know with absolute certainty everything that is happening with climate change to know that something seriously harmful is occurring,” Wenski wrote. “Therefore, it is better to act now than to wait until the problem gets worse and the remedies more costly.”

In this context, Wenski appealed to the “precautionary principle,” which is much cited by environmental activists.

Wenski also urged that environmental policy must be crafted with “a priority for the poor.”

In a telegram for the opening of the conference, Benedict XVI expressed the hope that it would result in “research and promotion of styles of life and models of production and consumption which are designed for respect of creation and the real exigencies of sustainable progress of peoples, taking account of the universal destination of goods, as has been repeatedly confirmed by the social doctrine of the church.”


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