Will the Vatican’s declaration on global warming have an impact on the overall climate debate?

By The Intersection | May 11, 2011 2:50 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

The Pontifical Academy of Science,  the Vatican’s non-denominational science panel, has declared that global action on climate change must be undertaken in order to avoid “serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases…”  These warnings are part of a report entitled “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene.”  The report was released along with a public address.  The statement urges,

“all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home.” [Read the entire statement]

But, will this appeal to the people of the world make a difference? That is a difficult question for which I am not equipped to respond.

Will it have an impact on American policy?  Sadly, I will argue, no, it will not have a major effect on the proceedings within our government on policies related to global warming.

Here’s why.

A concept of effective science communication that is gaining support is that experts’ opinions matter when they are perceived to reflect the emotional interests and values of a group.  We know from Dan Kahan’s work that when two groups differ on a scientific issue, those who are less informed about the topic tend to follow the experts who appear to represent their values. Kahan identified two groups who might view a particular scientific issue differently. He classified them as “people with individualistic and hierarchical values, who prize personal initiative and respect authority” and “people who subscribe to more egalitarian and communitarian values.” Whereas the message from the Catholic Church would seem to appeal to people with more individualistic and hierarchical values, I would argue that, at least in America, the Catholic Church is not considered to be a leader in the minds of our political “conservatives.”

In fact, as recently as two years ago, a study conducted by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that only 21% of Catholics are either strongly or weakly affiliated with the Republican Party. Instead, Republicans have effectively formed an alliance with evangelicals and Southern pastors of the Protestant persuasion. This essentially defines Catholics, for Republicans, as “the other team.” It also creates the context in which Republicans can maintain their position as deniers of anthropogenic climate change without losing a major part of their political base, White, Southern Protestants. In fact, a recent report released by LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist-affiliated polling agency, concluded that 60% percent of Protestant pastors disagree that global warming is real and man-made, and 41 percent of them “strongly” disagree. So, as reassuring as it was for those of us who appreciate the threat of man-caused global warming to hear of the report from the Catholic Church, it will unlikely be a game-changing event in America.

I suppose we’ll have to wait for droughts to hit Texas, incredibly powerful hurricanes to strike the Gulf states, massive tornado outbreaks to wipeout Southern communities, unprecedented flooding to hit rivers in the Southern states and for crop yields to begin to collapse due to warmer temperatures.

******[Clarification: I do not intend to suggest that recent weather events are verification of global warming, despite the fact that extreme weather is predicted by scientists to occur due to man-caused climate change.   Instead, I am wondering aloud what it will take for climate change deniers to come to the realization that the planet is changing due to human activities. If not scientific evidence, then what?  A message from God?]


Comments (29)

  1. Ian

    Why do you lead with the headline “Will the Vatican’s declaration on global warming have an impact on the overall climate debate?” only then to clarify that it’s not the Vatican but the PAS that issued the report?

    The PAS is “an independent entity within the Holy See” and “defines its own goals with regard to its statuted aim”. In this respect this report is not even a “message” or “report” from the Catholic Church as you put it.

    • The Intersection

      The address listed with the statement and report is as follows:
      Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze, Casina Pio IV, V-00120 Città del Vaticano
      There, at the end, that would be the Vatican City, No?

  2. John Moore

    No one can definitively link these tornadoe’s to any global warming symptom. Tornadoes typically get stronger after a wet winter period. The hurrican you linken Catrina was from what I have read and seen studies on was a “perfect” storm situation where a warm eddy from the Atlantic ocean made its way around the tip of Fla. just in front of that hurrican providing an abnormal amount of warm water to feed the storm to levels not normally seen over the cooler Gulf of Mexico waters. That and the statement made by Ian is what irks me about the “stance” of global warming alarmists. And as for the other calamities you mention has there every been an inclement weather disturbance that wasn’t caused by global warming? The dust bowl? The Mississippi cresting? All 1930’s weather!

    • The Intersection

      I did not mean to imply that each of these events can be directly attributed to global warming. I’m simply wondering what it will take for deniers to accept the scientific facts. Perhaps I should have written it that way.

  3. Nullius in Verba

    “All debate about global warming ended in 1998 after a four-year drought desolated the heartlands of North America and Eurasia. […] To many Americans and Canadians, the greenhouse signal literally became visible during the last two weeks of October of 1996, when winds that seemed to roar without respite gathered a “black blizzard” of prairie topsoil that darkened the skies of sixteen states and the Canadian Maritimes. The dust penetrated the lungs of cattle, stopped traffic on interstates, stripped pain from houses, and shut down computers. People put on goggles and covered their noses and mouths with wet handkerchiefs. They stapled plastic sheets over windows and doors but still the dust seeped through. Analysis disclosed that soil from Dalhart in the Texas Panhandle landed as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia. In place of the soil, the winds left only the heavy sands that now bury parts of the western plains under drifting dunes.”

    I’m sure you all remember that happening, don’t you?

    The danger of identifying weather as climate is that you make your credibility hostage to the next cold spell – as sceptics laugh once again about having to shovel the frozen global warming off the roads. Reputable scientists on the AGW side have warned against doing it, but still it goes on.

    The Texas drought is not unusual – they occur every few decades throughout recorded history. There is no detectable change in the frequency or severity of hurricanes, with the global accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) currently at a 30 year low. Aside from a one-year spike – which was due to cold air moving further south than usual as a result of the strong La Nina – there is no detectable change in tornadoes. Flooding is primarily due to changes in river management – changes in precipitation are minor and far from unprecedented. And crop yields are still going up – but some scientists do have a novel interpretation for the fact that their computer models don’t work.

    Whatever credibility you might have built up between times for AGW science, you blow it every time you try out this weather-is-climate line. Climate change is only detectable at continental scales over decades. Cherrypicking every example of extreme weather and blaming it on “global warming” is getting embarrassingly obvious. For shame!

    Quite why you think sceptics put any weight on the Pope’s scientific opinions I’m not quite sure. I don’t think it would make any difference if Protestant theologians said it, either. You keep on assuming that people are sceptical because they are told to be – either by businesses or churches. But most of the ones I know are sceptical because they are not convinced by the evidence. You seem to think that grossly anti-scientific statements like “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it” can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and a citing of “experts”, with no serious attempt to address the point, and everybody ought to realise the error of their ways and just fall in line.

    If people don’t, you think there must be something wrong with them. How can you not see what you are doing?

    In your role as a science journalist, you could produce some really interesting educational articles on what science is and how to recognise good and bad science from the examples provided by Climategate. It would be topical and thought-provoking – and would demonstrate that you take scientific integrity seriously, even when you don’t like the answer. You don’t even have to disagree with the overall conclusions. But for a working scientist to refuse to consider that there might be anything wrong, even in the face of outrageous statements like Phil’s above, is worrying. What has happened to science? How can anyone think this will lead to a good end?

    • The Intersection

      Nullius in Verba says,
      “But most of the ones I know are sceptical because they are not convinced by the evidence.”

      How many people do you know are adequately trained to analyze the data generated by climate scientists? At some point, even you must defer to the experts. I am not a climate scientist, therefore I rely on the scientific process to manage the debate on issues outside my area of expertise. Because I understand how the process works, I am able to distinguish good science from bad science.
      Based on my observations, those who claim to have evidence that disproves global warming usually fail to meet the rigors of the scientific process.
      Finally, I have examined the climategate emails and like the governing bodies who carried out internal investigations, I observed no wrongdoing or misrepresentation of the data. What I observed were real people expressing thoughts and opinions that some would deem insensitive and even arrogant. As for malpractice, I saw no evidence of that.

  4. John Craig

    What we need is more separation of church, state, industry, and military. And more integration of think-for-themselves people into each. Unfortunately, the science of global warming is being manipulated by very non-scientific political pundits hooked up with paid-for-under-the-table oil and gas industry giants and it could easily mess up this whole planet big time. And now religion is jumping into the fray. Geez. Science is not a debate, not a religion, not a political point of view. Did you read the news yesterday? Nine out of ten “scientific” global warming skeptics in the news have traceable ties to Exxon-Mobil. Check it out. Quick. Before it’s all too late. Stop the debate. It’s a science.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    “How many people do you know are adequately trained to analyze the data generated by climate scientists?”

    It depends on exactly what sort of analysis you mean. Some aspects are easily understood by anyone with a scientific degree. Others require post-grad maths or atmospheric physics.

    “At some point, even you must defer to the experts.”

    No. At some point I must concede that I can’t tell, and offer no opinion.

    I can say as a scientist that I don’t know because it is outside my field of expertise. I can speak in a non-scientific capacity as any other person can, and express my opinion based on whatever heuristics I choose (including listening to experts), but I can’t claim this to be a scientific opinion, or necessarily better than that of an educated layman. Because when it comes to topics that I don’t personally understand, I am in exactly that position. It is the difference between scientific method and scientific domain knowledge – I might not have the knowledge here, but I can still be a scientist by sticking to the method.

    “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

    “I am not a climate scientist, therefore I rely on the scientific process to manage the debate on issues outside my area of expertise.”

    What do you mean by “process”? Do you mean the institutional process of publications and committees and “governing bodies”? Or the principles of scepticism, replication, careful documentation, controls, etc.?

    “those who claim to have evidence that disproves global warming usually fail to meet the rigors of the scientific process.”

    I agree with that – depending on exactly what you mean by “global warming”. That the globe has warmed is not under serious dispute – sceptics claim that the climate is always changing, so it’s not such a big deal. The particular points sceptics dispute are more subtle than that.

    “Finally, I have examined the climategate emails and like the governing bodies who carried out internal investigations, I observed no wrongdoing or misrepresentation of the data.”

    Well firstly, they’re not “governing bodies”. They were mostly the institutions that had been accused, or favourable partisans employed by them. (For example, an ex-employee of the CRU who campaigned on green issues, or the chairman of a wind farm company who ran a green lobbying group.) And we know that the investigators were careful not to look at the issues under contention, nor to consult with the accusers. One enquiry used a selection of papers made by the department being investigated, and OK’ed by the chief suspect, and then asked the Royal Society to agree to say they picked it after it had already been distributed. The list, needless to say, did not include the work the sceptics disputed. And thirdly, there were some criticisms picked up even by the enquiries.

    “However, the guidance was not consistently followed in the fourth assessment, leading to unnecessary errors. For example, authors reported high confidence in statements for which there is little evidence, such as […]. Moreover, the guidance was often applied to statements that are so vague they cannot be falsified. In these cases the impression was often left, quite incorrectly, that a substantive finding was being presented.”

    “The Working Group II Summary for Policy Makers in the Fourth Assessment Report contains many vague statements of “high confidence” that are not supported sufficiently in the literature, not put into perspective, or are difficult to refute. The Committee believes that it is not appropriate to assign probabilities to such statements. There is, moreover, a danger that the confidence scale may be misinterpreted as indicating a statistical level of confidence in an outcome.”

    And then of course there is ‘Harry’:
    “What the hell is supposed to happen here? Oh yeah – there is no ‘supposed’, I can make it up. So I have :-)”
    who did seem to think there was something ‘wrong’ with what he was doing…
    “You can’t imagine what this has cost me – to actually allow the operator to assign false
    WMO codes!!”
    … and understood also the consequences of doing it…
    “In other words, what CRU usually do. It will allow bad databases to pass unnoticed, and good databases to become bad, but I really don’t think people care enough to fix ’em, and it’s the main reason the project is nearly a year late.”

    You presumably saw that. You presumably saw him say “I am seriously worried that our flagship gridded data product is produced by Delaunay triangulation – apparently linear as well. As far as I can see, this renders the station counts totally meaningless. […] Of course, it’s too late for me to fix it too. Meh.” You presumably noticed that none of the enquiries explain this, why it isn’t wrong. Or how the output of this database got into the IPCC reports without anyone else noticing.

    You tell me that scepticism “usually fail[s] to meet the rigors of the scientific process”, but you would presumably claim that the above approach meets it? How?

    Did you also notice what Tom Wigley said about the Wang/Jones affair? “Seems to me that Keenan has a valid point. The statements in the papers that he quotes seem to be incorrect statements, and that someone (WCW at the very least) must have known at the time that they were incorrect.” This is a rather more complicated backstory, but does involve an actual investigation for scientific fraud – one dismissed behind closed doors with no evidence presented, contrary to the university rules. (“Kafka at Albany”.) What do the enquiries have to say about it? Like the enquiries, you may well have observed no wrongdoing or misrepresentation, but did you look?

    Answering these sorts of questions in detail would go a lot further towards neutralising scepticism than vague hand-waving about enquiries exonerating them and not having seen any wrongdoing.

  6. Brian Too

    No, it will make little or no difference.

    The deniers are, from what I can see, working backwards from their conclusion. All evidence must be interpreted so as to reach the correct conclusion.

    The logic chain works like this: Since Climate Change is Not Happening, anyone who espouses it is a commie and a pinko. Therefore the conclusion is inescapable. The Pope is a commie. Sorry!

    More seriously, I’d suggest that the influence of the Catholic Church in North America and pretty well the entire developed world has been waning for decades. Most people there don’t look to the Church for thought leadership.

    Also, and to be entirely truthful, science has never been the Church’s strong suit. For instance the scientific community persuaded by Climate Change would probably be skeptical about forming any kind of alliance or even joint statement on the matter. Even if they were 100% in agreement!

    My opinion is that the deniers, to the extent that they have religious affiliations, are probably drawing from the evangelical and fundamentalist communities. This cohort has little to do with the Catholic Church. Therefore trying to draw a faith-based connection between the Vatican and the evangelicals is also likely to fail.

  7. Nullius in Verba

    “The logic chain works like this: Since Climate Change is Not Happening…”

    But Climate change IS happening. :-)

    The difference is that we believe it has always happened.

  8. Dr. Vernon, thanks much for this good overview of the Church’s engagement with climate change. There are lots of moving parts here, so it’s tough to keep everything in perspective as well as you did.

    A few observations (which I discuss in my post on the climate change report in my blog http://catholicecology.blogspot.com, the link to the direct post is: http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/2011/05/pontifical-report-on-climate-change.html )

    1. It has always been a Catholic trait to engage and employ worldly sciences, as can be seen in the writings of St. Paul through St. Augustine and St. Thomas, to Fr. Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, and Fr. Georges Lemaitre, who took Einstein’s work and formulated the cosmic expansion theory—the Big Bang.

    2. For those who see the Church as irrelevant and backwards—or as a religious body that has lost its moral authority—this major piece of science, and the attention it’s garnered, demonstrates otherwise.

    3. For those who see climate change as somehow antithetical to the Christian faith—or who think it’s all a hoax—the report also demonstrates otherwise.

    4. The Holy Father has been preaching about ecology because he truly cares about the natural order of creation. The term he uses to link ecology with other Catholic positions is “human ecology.” (See his encyclical Caritas in Veritate: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html)

    5. From the Catholic perspective, what is happening globally due to pollution also happens to individual souls because of sin. That people deny the former does not dissuade the Church, because it is accustomed to people denying the latter (which I do regularly!)

    Again, good job with this post. Keep it up.

    Bill P.

  9. The world has walked away from taxing the air to make the weather colder, i.e. climate change. Even Obama himself never even mentioned society’s greatest crisis ever in the history of the planet, i.e. climate change, in his state of the union speech.
    American IPPC funding was pulled and what did the concerned saintly scientists do when they were snubbed? Nothing.
    RIP Climate Blame
    Will the scientists and news editors see their day in court for knowingly leading us to a false war against a non existent enemy of CO2 for 25 years of needless and costly panic? Yes most certainly because meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of needed population control.
    Call the courthouse.
    Just a small note:
    Funny isn’t it how Polar Bears were also known as Yellow Bears that were only 300 years ago, indigenous to as far south as Minnesota USA. They were called “Yellow Bears” because they held their winter coats longer. But still the same bear.

  10. leo

    I disagree with the sentiment that Catholic support for action on global warming won’t influence social conservatives. Although most social conservatives are not Catholic, they have come to see the Catholic Church as an ally in issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and prominent social conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Bill Donahue emphasize their Catholic faith.

    I would therefore think that the Vatican would be seen as “on the same team”, and if this story were pushed more I think the conservative response would be more to deny that this is the true Vatican position than to concede that the Vatican wants to fight global warming but is now a untrustworthy voice.

  11. Jim Johnson

    Chris, I think your final, parenthetical, statement is the most important one in the debate at this time: What will take to convince climate deniers.

    The reason I say this is, there must be SOMETHING. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, but if one walked up to me & started talking to me about egg choices, I’m pretty sure I’d reconsider. If an atheist actually had a visitation from a god, that person would change their views on religion.

    Yet, from what I can tell, no one has asked climate deniers this most basic question. “A reasonable person must admit the possibility that their views may be wrong, and should be able to identify some line or criteria or event that would let them know they have been wrong. If it did turn out that man-made global warming actually is happening, what would you take as a sign you must re-think your position on it?”

    If the deniers (or even a significant subset of them) could be identified as having some sort of criteria like this, it would let proponents of the global warming theory know where to focus efforts.

  12. Now God “has” to be laughing at this. Got to be!!

  13. Nullius in Verba

    “Yet, from what I can tell, no one has asked climate deniers this most basic question.”

    Good question. My suggestions are:

    1. All data and methods used to produce the evidence must be published openly. Raw data is to be archived securely, and any processing and adjustments disclosed. This includes adverse data not used but which is potentially relevant. Data sources must be maintained and updated.
    2. The evidence must be independently audited, and the checks done must likewise be open.
    3. The work is to be done to the highest levels of quality and integrity. (Especially software.) Obvious failures in process are to be rectified before relying on the results.
    4. Results that fail replication must be withdrawn, and not cited in evidence thereafter.
    5. The evidence must constitute a complete, sound and valid logical chain from empirical evidence to the conclusion of a probable disastrous change in climate due to anthropogenic CO2 increase.
    6. Errors and uncertainties must be quantified or estimated, and disclosed.
    7. The theory must make testable predictions of events that will not occur naturally, and these must be verified using data independent of the hypothesis-forming process. (For example, collected after the prediction is made.) Failed predictions must be taken into account when working out the significance of the successful ones.
    8. All the evidence and explanation should be organised and made easily and freely accessible to the general public, clarified and expanded where necessary. Simplified versions should have the simplifications indicated.

    That would be a good start.

  14. Will this effect Australia, where the anti-mitigation opposition leader is a devout Catholic?

  15. John

    Chris I think we all know what you really meant by the last line of the article. You want the skeptics to convert to fearing climate change even if its for unscientific or even scientifically erroneous reasons, like the pope told them too or tornado struck near by.

    To put it in more biblical terms, you are wishing for your climate change god to shower the disbelievers in fire and brimstone. Your not a journalist Chris, your a Priest.

    They should fire you and give your job to Nullius in Verba.

  16. I am glad the Pontifical Academy has taken an official stand on the dangers of global warming. The real question is, would this prompt ordinary catholics at grassroots level to worn on mitigating the problems? I actually don’t care much if their fight against global warming is inspired by science or God (although the former would of course be nice). It’s already quite late, and consequences have become much more important than causes.

  17. Ian

    @6, What does the address matter – the PAS is linked the Vatican, but it remains independent. My point is that your article refers to this as a ‘message’ and ‘report’ from the Church – it is not! If it were then why is the report being presented to the Pope? If the report came from the Church it would come via the Pope. Read the PAS’s website.

    Furthermore given that its members are not necessarily Catholic why the emphasis on what Catholics do with this report? Not to mention the picture of the Pope. The report is for all people.

  18. 1985

    I don’t see a substantial difference between the Vatican statements on global warming and the Vatican statements on evolution.

  19. Mark MD, PhD

    The idea that a “Pontifical Academy of Science” even exists in 2011 is utterly laughable. Perhaps the NIH should convene a study section to comment on what foods people should give up for Lent, or the London School of Economics release a paper on what the going rate for indulgences should be.

    Oil and water, matter and antimatter, religion and science.

  20. Matt B.

    “Will the Vatican’s declaration on global warming have an impact on the overall climate debate?”

    Well, the catholic Church’s embrace of evolutionary theory hasn’t stopped creationists over here.

  21. Matt B.

    Climate change is not anthropogenic. The suffix “-genic” means “making”, not “made by”. Hydrogen makes water, carcinogens make carcinomas, and anthropogens make people.

  22. genealogymaster

    With the Catholic Church involved CAGW is becoming more and more like a religion. The research on global warming is faulty and the investigations did nothing to squash the rumours of whitewash. In fact it makes it appear as these institutions have something to hide.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar