The issue of climate change seems to have taken on a life of its own all of a sudden. A French foreign minister recently claimed that we only have about two years before it’s too late for our world. The U.S. Navy reports that climate change is a growing threat to national security.
The Democratic Party, facing a chill in their power in Washington leading up to this year’s midterm elections, has been using this issue to rally its base. From an all-night talkathon on the Senate floor and Secretary of State John Kerry referring to it as the world’s “most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” to the National Climate Assessment just released this May, the climate is once again a national story.
Despite all of the urgency in many quarters, doubts persist. Having just experienced one of the coldest winters on record, one can understand why many Americans are skeptical. Ten major U.S. cities, says The Weather Channel, faced one of their worst winters this year. Some have even started to report a pause in global warming for the last 15 years.
What ought a Catholic to think about it all, and what does Catholic social teaching have to say?
First of all, the U.S. bishops and the Vatican encourage Catholics to approach the issue of climate change, and the broader question of environmental stewardship, as a moral issue. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us that the environment is part of our experience as human persons. Nature points us towards a provident God who loves us. Indeed, nature was part of the very drama of our salvation when the sky darkened and the earth shook at Jesus’ death on the cross.
Unfortunately, humanity’s use of the environment has not always reflected our Christian traditions. The Western world emphasizes having and doing instead of being. As a result, we tend to see the environment as merely something to use. We have at times shown little respect for it, failing to take the proper care of it. We consume the environment and dispense with it, having little concern for the future or for the poor.
At the other extreme, some have made nature into a divine reality. For them, the environment does not merely point to the Lord who loves; nature becomes god. Theories about Gaia spiritualism and panentheism abound within certain Catholic circles. As a result, the environment becomes more important than the good of people, and the human person becomes a parasite that must be constrained, if not exterminated.
This is why there is a great need to explain the relationship between an environmental ecology and the “human ecology,” says the Compendium (464). Any approach that would artificially break the bond between the environment and human persons, by whatever extreme, is to be rejected. God himself created that bond.
The Church teaches that taking care of nature is an extension of our vocation to care for all life. This is why caring for the environment is not merely a matter of personal preference, but a moral obligation. Being pro-life means that we care for the natural world that helps to sustain our life: the food we grow, the pharmaceuticals we produce, the building material we use, etc.
Thus far, not much of what the Compendium covers is controversial. Preservation of resources and regular care of the environment, with a balanced understanding of our relationship with nature, is widely accepted. Controversy enters with the question of climate change and what to do about it.
The Church is not a scientific institution, and so the Compendium does not address the questions about global warming and climate models that predict almost certain doom. However, the Church is an expert on humanity, and so the Compendium offers an important principle as we address the question of climate change: the “precautionary principle.”
The Compendium (469) starts with the presumption that the climate is an extremely complex system about which we do not have a complete understanding. It notes that those in authority often find that the scientific data upon which they are called to make decisions is “contradictory or quantitatively scarce.” As a result, public policy that aims to deal with environmental problems ought to function by the “precautionary principle.”
This means that “decisions be based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives, including the decision not to intervene.” Politicians, then, ought to be cautious about the laws they pass.
Indeed, the Compendium says that environmental policy should be made up of “temporary decisions” that can be easily “modified on the basis of new facts.” For instance, if the models used turn out to be inaccurate, then public policy should be able to reflect the adjustments.
Furthermore, when we compare the “risks and benefits” of a particular public-policy decision, we ought to consider the risks to the poor in particular. This is part of the preferential option for the poor, a key teaching of Catholic social doctrine.
Public policy that risks significant increases in the cost of energy will, if successful, place a comparatively greater burden on the lives of the poor than on those with disposable income. When that fact is coupled with the uncertainty about the reliability of the data and the benefit of a given policy, then prudence requires Catholics to take a second look at so-called “green” policies.
This is not to say that efforts around a healthy environment or climate change ought to be abandoned. The point is that the policies proposed must take into account the well-being of all of the planet’s stakeholders. How can we say in the midst of the poverty of Africa or Latin America, for instance, that those peoples ought not have access to coal and oil? Should they embrace the latest climate-change recommendations and accept the economic disruption that would accompany that decision — even as such guidelines continue to change?
While the “precautionary principle” calls for prudent risk-benefit analyses for environmental public policy, one could argue that it should also inspire Catholics to be more proactive about recycling, reusing and reducing consumption. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have decried the culture of consumption that permeates the West. Recycling and reducing our consumption of energy is a responsible, prudent and easy way to care for our environment.
Assuming the climate-change apocalypse is not set to turn our world upside down, it is prudent for Catholics to adopt different lifestyles to better reflect their concern for the environment and to better reflect our awareness of the dangers of irresponsible consumption. Forming the habits for recycling, reusing and reducing all require the exercise of virtue, and that can help our spiritual life as well, for attachments to the “always new and better” distract us from the important matters of the soul.
In the end, Catholic social teaching tells us to see our responsibility for the environment as a moral issue. We can address that responsibility by adopting a simplicity of life that finds joy and peace in gratitude for the superabundance of God’s love, the wellspring of creation. And we must always have the good of the poorest and most vulnerable in mind as we look at public policy.
Omar Gutiérrez is the manager of the Office of Missions & Justice
for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, and the author of
The Urging of Christ’s Love: The Saints and the
Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.