Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cardinal Pell on climate change: what about the precautionary principle?

Cardinal Pell features in the Sydney Morning Herald today once again expressing scepticism on man-made climate change, this time in relation to a Vatican Report calling for Governments to accept that climate change is indeed man-made and to act urgently to minimalise it.

So is it Church teaching?

According to the article, Cardinal Pell said that the Vatican document was important but not part of the church's teachings, but rather "represents only the conclusions of the independent scientists involved." Well that is certainly true at the level of the fact of whether or not climate change is happening, and whether or not our actions are a substantial contributing factor to this. 

But what is Church teaching, reinforced in the Pope's last encyclical Caritas in Veritate, is our duty of stewardship to the environment. 

In fact the Pope said that:

"The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction." (51)

Warnings and when to act

Over the last few weeks and years we have seen a lot of debate about the adequacy, or rather lack thereof, in relation to warnings and precautionary action in the face of bushfires, floods and other natural disasters.  The same debate is regularly played out in the area of health issues, in the context of early warnings relating to Mad Cow disease, swine flu and other such events.

In all these cases, the fundamental guiding principle is known as the 'precautionary principle' - the idea that, in essence, even though the evidence that something is a serious threat may not be absolutely established, if the costs of not acting are potentially high, one should act anyway.  The burden of proof in such cases must shift to those who say action should not be taken.

Personally, although our current Gillard Government is failing miserably at selling the case for their proposed carbon tax, I don't think Cardinal Pell, Opposition leader Tony Abbott or any of the other climate change 'sceptics' lurking around have yet made the case for inaction.

Separating out the issues

To look at this debate objectively, we need to separate out three distinct issues, namely:
  • is climate change occurring, and if so does the extent of change pose a serious threat to humanity?
  • assuming the answer is yes, is there a serious risk that human action is making climate change worse?
  • can we do anything about it?
Based on the SMH article at least the Cardinal would answer no to all three questions.  The current Opposition take a slightly softer position (well depending on which day of the week it is and what audience Mr Abbott is talking to; consistency is not a notable feature of his modus operandi), sort of accepting that man-made climate change might be real, but arguing that the proposed solutions are likely to be ineffective or that such drastic action is not warranted.

So let's examine each of these issues briefly.

Is climate change real?

There is a view popular amongst US Catholic (and other) Conservatives in particular "that global warming is a the forces of population control... to encourage people to contracept and abort their way to a greener planet..."

It is certainly true that extremists have seized on global warming as the latest excuse to push their longstanding pro-death agenda.  And they have done so very successfully.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that the actual fact of global warming is a conspiracy.

The reality is that the extremes of neo-paganism and neo-pantheism condemned by the Pope in Caritate in Veritate have been around for a long time - and the Green movement is just the latest incarnation of the 'limits to growth'/save the whales/radical vegan fringe that has long been with us!

No doubt the agents of extremism have at times pushed the evidence too far at times, distorted it and worse.  But the concept of global warming surely passes the 'plausibility test': if you suddenly start consuming massive quantities of fossil fuels and cutting down millions of acres of forests, surely you have to expect some impact on the wider ecosystem of the world!

The fact is that the weight of the scientific consensus is strongly in favour of man-made global warming. In the light of the precautionary principle, we shouldn't lightly reject that just because a few scientists disagree.

Moreover, as the Pope has pointed out, the idea that nothing we do the environment, no matter how extreme, could really be impacting adversely on the earth is an unhelpful form of determinism:

"When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God's creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God's creation." (Caritas in Veritate 48)

Are the adverse impacts of climate change sufficiently serious?

The second leg of the test for action is that the consequences of not acting be sufficiently serious.

For a long time we have heard about the threat to coastal regions, and the likely major shift in temperate regions.   The evidence is also mounting that the bushfires, floods and other climate events we've seen in recent years may also be due to climate change.  The Government could be doing more, in the context of the current debate, to remind us of all of those impacts.  Still, if you look back at the studies, I think the case is pretty strong, particularly for a country like Australia whose population is so heavily concentrated along the coastline.

Can we do anything about it?

The real debate, it seems to me, and where our Church leaders might be more productively putting their focus, is in the area of solutions.

If one accepts for the sake of argument that the escalation in the level of CO2 emissions are the problem, then of course there are things that can be done to at least stop making things worse.

Whether or not climate change can actually be reversed is another question that deserves to be focused on, but first things first.  Just as in tobacco smoking we know that 'every cigarette is doing you damage' as the ad campaign insists, the first stage is to stop doing more damage to the environment, and prevent potential new starters from starting!

Consumerism as the culprit

The environmental lobby (along with dissident Catholics such as Paul Collins in his last book Judgment Day) see population control as the solution.

But the Pope has instead pointed the finger at the real culprit in this equation, namely consumerism gone mad.  Our environmental challenges, he suggests:

"..invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”' (Caritas in Veritate, 51)

Here is the thing. The United States accounts for 4.5% of the world's population. But for 20% of global CO2 emissions. By contrast, Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country in terms of population, with 3.4% of the world's population, accounts for only 1.3% of greenhouse emissions.

Australia of course is well and truly in the US consumerist camp - 0.33% of the world's population, but 1.35% of global emissions.

Yet instead of seeing our self-indulgent quest for an ever higher standard of living, defined purely in terms of material things, as a genuine problem, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is running a destructive and irresponsible campaign aimed at protecting the consumerist delusion.

Responsible action

Telling people that some industries do actually need to restructure or even die out, that we do have to change our ways, and that we do in fact have a responsibility to act in the interests of future generations and other countries affected by our destruction of the environment is admittedly a hard sell politically.  While not perhaps 'the greatest moral challenge of our times' as ex-PM Rudd claimed, it is certainly right up there.

It is not an impossible sell though - in many ways, in the Australian context at least, the arguments are a rerun of those used in relation to microeconomic reform in the 1990s.  Radical reforms back then had a huge cost in terms of job losses in some industries.  But they laid the ground work for Australia's current economic stability and prosperity.  Smart solutions and investment in new technologies now could have the same impact on our future.

On the face of it, a carbon tax that encourages us to redirect our expenditure in ways that have less impact on the environment - assuming it is well-designed and compensates large families properly - is exactly consonant with what the Church teaches in this area.

But there may be other, better solutions out there.  Let's focus the debate on them, rather than endless denialism.

Let's focus on getting out the message that it is consumerism and the self-indulgent pursuit of individual pleasure that lies at the root of the sickness in our society.

Because it will surely only be by refocusing our culture on God and the happiness he promises; by refocusing on the virutes of selfless service and self-sacrifice over individual self-gratification; by rejecting the extremes of both pantheism/paganism and determinism, that we can move forward as a society, as a world, in creating a culture of life that truly fulfills our duty of stewardship towards the environment.


A Canberra Observer said...

I would guess you don't want to have a debate about the precautionary principle ...

Kate said...

Sure, go for it!

John said...

Kate, this is a great article on the precautionary principle, but I think you give the Cardinal and other climate change "deniers" (such an ugly term — I prefer to be called a sceptic) short shrift on question 1.

I'm pro-life, but that doesn't inform my views on a climate change conspiracy. I think money is motive enough to explain a conspiracy.

But my real objection is to the science. It's not settled. It's not, in my opinion, persuasive. The data simply doesn't support the conclusions of the climate change proponents.

I think this is Cardinal Pell's position too.

Kate said...

John - You are probably right about terminology.

On the precautionary principle argument, though, it doesn't matter if the science isn't really settled. It is sufficient if the risks of inaction should it prove correct are sufficiently high.

The classic example is Mad Cow disease - when the possiblity of it first broke, the science was very uncertain indeed, and the potential costs to farmers catastrophic. So the British Minster went on tv saying the evidence was not there and his family would be eating beef for dinner that night. On the precautionary principle, he really should have given a proper warning, and thus saved lives. But of course it can go the other way to, as Swine Flu showed.

On conspiracy theories though, what is the argument in relation to money, I'm not sure what you are getting at?

Joshua said...

Do avoid the pejorative term "climate change deniers" - it draws a very unpleasant parallel with "Holocaust deniers".

"Sceptics" would be an uncontroversial term I suppose.

Kate said...

I see the problem with 'deniers' I've changed the terminology in the piece.

But my problem is that 'sceptic' really isn't an adequate descriptor. This is like the distinction between agnostics and atheists - so called sceptics are not neutral, allegedly just waiting for the evidence to come in, but mostly take a very definite position on the issue, and that is to reject the science (and attack the scientists who propound it).