Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Laudato Si" and the Precautionary Principle

Not everyone accepts that we are experiencing “global warming” and many question (if there is global warming) whether human beings are responsible for it.

In his encyclical Laudato si  Pope Francis said, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” and “…a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” (cf #23).

The problem with interpreting the facts and what the pope says here focuses on his use of the restrictive term “a number of scientific studies.” Such a reference suggests there is not a consensus.

In a different area of science, for example, there are a number of scientific studies which propose the existence of gigantic halos of dark matter which hold the Bullet Cluster together, while a number of other scientific studies propose MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) as the reason for the strong curvature around the two galaxies in this cluster collision. Which thesis are we to accept?

Concern about our earthly environment is obviously more immediate and important to us than theories about the Bullet Cluster, but the question remains whether the available scientific data about global warming are sufficient to draw a reliable conclusion.

In previous writings on safeguarding the environment, the Catholic Church’s social doctrine proposed a solution when dealing with controverted opinions or theses. It suggested using the "precautionary principle." The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004, explained:

The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the “precautionary principle,” which does not mean applying rules but certain guidelines aimed at managing the situation of uncertainty (469).

The precautionary principle promotes prudent policies, comparing risks and benefits and discerning various possible alternatives. “The circumstances of uncertainty and provisional solutions,” the Compendium continues, “make it particularly important that the decision-making process be transparent” (cf 469).

While Pope Francis addresses many other issues related to protection of the environment (we  know the results of pollution of rivers, the smog of cities, the de-forestation of whole countries), it is likely that these issues will be passed over and the focus, especially in politically correct circles, will be on man-made global warming. Laudatio si is about much more, and chief among its concerns is the effect of the environment on people, especially the poor.

It may seem a stretch to suggest that we have something to learn from Native Americans and their attitude toward the environment, but respect for God’s creation is a most helpful step in preserving, protecting and promoting the environment for ourselves and future generations.

The traditions of the First Americans hold that everything the creator made has a spirit, and that all things are related and all things are sacred. Even the Bible notes the intimate relationship between human beings and the soil: “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground” (cf Gen 2:7). Our English word “human” derives from the Latin “homo” (man), which may in turn derive from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European word meaning “earthling.” And therefore (forgive me if this seems a stretch) to be humane is to have feelings for the earth from which we were made.

Larry Zimmerman in his Native North America (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 1996) writes, “Most Native peoples respect the earth as the source of an endless cycle of generation, destruction and regeneration, through which all things are believed to pass. The view of the earth as a powerful nurturing force is expressed in the Native concept of Mother Earth…” (p 78).

Issues about water, bio-diversity, and eco-systems are not unrelated to the quality of human life and the breakdown of human society. Pope Francis has looked at these issues through the lens of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and offers his perspective. He does not speak as a scientist; he speaks as a religious leader and a prophet. He is convinced that human beings have responsibility for the proper use of the world’s resources. He asks people of good will to reflect upon the environmental problems we face, to honor creation as a sacred gift from God, and respond in a way that is motivated by responsibility and respect.

Even if we cannot agree on whether global warming is man-made, we can agree on use of the precautionary principle and continue our study and our prudent use of natural resources.

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