Oho! The Pope! How many divisions has he got?

Joseph Stalin[1]

[Today’s quote is from Joseph Stalin, a former leader of the former Soviet Union. Stalin was deriding a Pope of the 1930’s, and the answer to Stalin’s question was simple. That Pope had no divisions. Later this month the current Pope, Francis[2] by name, will visit America, and he doesn’t have any divisions, either. Nor does he have fissile materials, nuclear or thermonuclear weapons or other things of that sort stashed in the Vatican basement. But perhaps he has something more powerful; a sharp mind and a clear vision of what’s really going on in this tired old world of ours.

This Pope has a thing about ecology and the climate. He even wrote a letter about it last May.[3] But that was 3 months ago, so our short-attention-span media have forgotten, or at least don’t mention the letter much. But no doubt he’ll remind us later this month, when he addresses a joint session of our most excellent Congress, and that should be interesting.

We all know Congress, and especially Republicans, love the foreign dignitaries with whom they agree. Just think of all the whooping and hollering that went with Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit back in March. That was a real love feast! Don’t believe me? You can see the whole thing at http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=netanyahu+congress+2015&FORM=VIRE2#view=detail&mid=508BC0FFA998EE2AA049508BC0FFA998EE2AA049 But what will happen when someone comes to Congress and says things emotional Republicans don’t like? Something about controlling carbon emissions, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, or conservation? Will Republicans sulk and mutter for the duration? Will they walk out? Or will they riot?

You see the  Pope, unlike today’s Republicans, agrees with the scientific consensus that our globe really is warming, and he’s concluded that’s not a good thing. We – human beings collectively – should be stewards of the world, not its assassins; but lately we’ve been acting like the bad guys, and the results are coming in: acidification of the oceans[4], melting polar ice caps[5], climate change that leads to mass migrations[6], strange and violent storms and fires, and so forth. Today the brunt of these changes falls on the poor, not the rich, and that’s not good, either.

But I’m not the main presenter this time; so I’ll shut up and turn the podium over to Phil, our resident philosopher. Phil tells me he’s actually read the Pope’s entire recent letter, and understands a good part of it. That qualifies him as an expert around here and, more to the point, he’s our only volunteer. ]

Thanks for the introduction, I think. I should point out that the “letter” you mention is the Pope’s new Encyclical, Laudato Si’; it’s long and complicated, and while some of it is theology, a lot also is hard science. The English translation runs to 81 pages, including footnotes, and includes 246 numbered paragraphs and two prayers.[7] I know my limitations; I’m going to touch on the theology, but concentrate more on the science part. But even that is complicated, so I’ll narrow the discussion a bit further. I’ll focus chiefly on Paragraph 23 of the document.

[Paragraph 23! Who’s going to talk about the other 245 paragraphs?]

Not me. I have a life, after all; and in any case, Paragraph 23 gives us a pretty good insight into the Pope’s reasoning. That’s plenty for a blog post. If you wanted a treatise, you should have called somebody else.

People who don’t like my selection should read the rest of the original, and point out where I’m wrong. I don’t mind being corrected. Good corrections make our product better.

[Blah, blah, blah. Get on with the discussion, please.]

Paragraph 23

Fine. Even paragraph 23 is fairly long, so I’m going to summarize the three main points here, and quote it at length in the notes.[8] The main points are:

  • The climate is “a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” Global climate is complex, and “linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.” Humans are “stewards” of this world and to the extent possible should manage it for the benefit of all.
  • There’s a “very solid scientific consensus … that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” This “has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events ….” These changes, in whole or in part, can be traced to humanity’s increasing use of fossil fuels, and the greenhouse gasses generated thereby. “Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural uses.”
  • “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

For the Common Good

The notion that humans are the “stewards” of the environment is, of course, aspirational. Pope Francis makes his argument with historical analogies[9], scriptural references[10], and the writings of earlier modern popes[11], but – to me, at least – its real power springs from the fact that the contrary position is unattractive and possibly suicidal. Either governments will manage the environment with a decent respect for the interests of others, or they will ignore everyone but themselves and make enemies everywhere.

Why? Well, because everything is so damnably interconnected these days. Burn coal or oil in China, and you may help melt ice caps at the north or south poles, or glaciers in Norway, etc. So governments have to discuss this kind of thing with one another, set limits on fossil fuel consumption, develop new, alternative technologies, and generally make arrangements to avoid degrading the environment we all share.

Trapping Heat

Now let’s talk about world temperatures. There’s really not much dispute about whether they are rising. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [the IPCC] reports “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”[12]

[So why did this happen? How does a planet warm?]

One way is by retaining heat from the Sun, rather than reflecting it back out into space. Astronomers have known for some time, for example, that Venus, the planet in our solar system next closer to the Sun than ours, has surface temperatures close to 900 degrees Fahrenheit.[13] That’s really hot, the hottest in the solar system.How does it happen? Well, it’s not just because of Venus’s location. It also has lots of greenhouse gasses in its atmosphere.

[What’s a greenhouse gas?]

Stop interrupting! I was getting to that. Carbon dioxide is one, and it’s very efficient at trapping heat. It lets visible light from the sun pass through it, but traps the infrared radiation that’s generated once the sunlight heats a planet’s surface. So that heat – the infrared – is retained, instead of being reflected back out into space, and further heats the lower atmosphere and the ground.[14]

Well, the same thing happens here on Earth, but it’s not so extreme. Our planet’s atmosphere has a greenhouse effect that raises surface temperature here about 25 degrees Fahrenheit above what it would be with no atmosphere at all.[15] That’s not the problem; in fact, the temperature difference – and the atmosphere, by the way – are essential to support many forms of life.

But what happens if we pile more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, say, by burning more and more fossil fuels? Or what if levels of other greenhouse gasses, such as methane, nitrogen oxides and others[16], also begin to rise? Will surface temperatures go up? Well, surely they won’t fall, will they? And, anyway, the IPCC has said that surface temperatures on Earth definitely are on the rise.

[So, does the Pope agree that rising levels of greenhouse gasses are the sole reason why surface temperatures on Earth are going up?]

Time to Change

No. He says that’s not conclusively proved. There may be other possible factors at work out there, “such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle”[17]; but most studies agree that human activity – burning fossil fuels – is the big factor in global warming. So if humans are part of the problem, they need to be part of the solution as well.

And even if humans “didn’t do it” with respect to some part of global warming, we still must act to undo any damage if possible. If there’s a forest fire, started by lightening, humans still have to put it out. To ignore the fire is irrational. The same is true for global warming.So we’ve got to cut back on our coal and oil addiction, not increase the supply. Take that! Republicans.

[Come on, Phil! The Pope didn’t actually make a rude gesture when he issued Laudato Si’, did he?]

Probably not.

[Good. I’m thinking the only thing that will reduce world oil consumption in the near term is a world-wide recession. Governments generally aren’t fans of recessions but, on the other hand, so what? Recessions come and go regardless of what Governments want. And for some reason, they’re always unexpected when they occur. The big one in 2008 seemed to be a surprise to everybody important, including the media, Wall Street, and the Bush Administration. Frankly, I don’t know why.

Anyway, thanks, Phil, for all your help. I know there’s a lot more you wanted to say on this subject, but we kind of ran out of time and energy. So let’s make it a date to revisit the Pope’s views sometime soon. Perhaps we could even talk about a different paragraph next time?]






[1] This is from Rees, Brewer’s Famous Quotations (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006) (hereafter, Brewer’s at __), at p. 440, Joseph Stalin, n. 9. It’s of course an English translation from the Russian.

[2] See the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Francis

[3] The Holy See, Encyclical Letter LAUDATO SI’ of the Holy Father Francis On Care for Our Common Home (Rome, May 24, 2015) (hereafter cited as Laudato Si’ at __) It’s available from the Vatican, at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[4] See, e.g. Laudato Si’ at p. 8 ¶24: “Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.”

[5] See, e.g. Laudato Si’ at p. 8 ¶24: “The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release in methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide.”

[6] See, e.g. Laudato Si’ at p. 8 ¶25

[7] The prayers are at the end. One is “A prayer for our earth;” the other “A Christian prayer in union with creation.”

[8] See Laudato Si’ at p. 7 – 8, ¶23. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet 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. Concentrated in the atmosphere these gasses do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural uses.”

[9] Principally, to St. Francis of Assisi. See, e.g. Laudato Si’ at p 3-4, ¶¶10, 11 & 12.

[10] See, e.g. Laudato Si’ at p 1, ¶2.

[11] See, e.g. Laudato Si’ at p. 2-3, ¶4 (Pope Paul VI), ¶5 (Saint John Paul II), & ¶6 (Pope Benedict XVI).

[12] See IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, available at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/ and specifically, the Summary for Policymakers, at §B, Observed Changes in the Climate System, available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf

[13] See de Grasse Tyson & Goldsmith, Origins (Norton, 2004) (hereafter cited as Origins at __) at p. 261.

[14] See Origins at p. 260: “Sunlight can therefore penetrate Venus’ atmosphere even though atmospheric reflection reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface. This sunlight heats the planet’s surface, which radiates infrared, and which cannot escape. Instead the carbon dioxide molecules trap it, as the infrared radiation heats the lower atmosphere and the surface below. Scientists call this trapping of infrared radiation the “greenhouse effect,” by loose analogy to their glass windows, which admit visible light but block some of the infrared.”

[15] Id.

[16] See Laudato Si’ at p. 7 – 8, ¶23

[17] Id.