Laudato si’: The Catholic approach to climate change

Laudato si’ and climate change

            Climate change is, not surprisingly, the most controversial and politically charged issue in Laudato si’. It has been a source of heated debate and confusion especially in the American context. In this essay I will outline everything the encyclical Laudato si’ says on climate change and then compare and contrast with the latest scientific, technical and academic knowledge. For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish and analyze the statements on climate change under three divisions: science, policy, and politics and economics. These are artificial divisions since these issues are all interrelated, as the encyclical itself indicates, but they serve our analytical purposes.

[Note: I encourage the reader to glance at my two previous articles on Laudato si’ about hermeneutics and its proper interpretation, so that I am not misinterpreted on climate change, as I believe the Pope has been in many cases).


Let me begin with a thought provoking – and provocative – quote that I believe gets at the heart of the debate on climate change: “Isn’t it a question of everything or nothing? To be quite frank, the Either-Or people seldom appear to practice their own severity. Their uncompromising attitude looks suspiciously like rhetoric.”

These are the words of Romano Guardini, the most quoted author in Laudato si’ and the Pope’s great inspiration for understanding the relationship between man and creation. However, these words are not from Guardini’s well-known critiques of modernity but rather from his more famous spiritual work, The Lord. The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount. Guardini is reflecting on Jesus’ demand to love ones enemies and on how difficult it is to fulfill this in practice. Faced with such a challenge, Guardini proposes taking small steps in the right direction. The quote above is the objection of the Either-Or people to Guardini’s solution: “But isn’t it a question of everything or nothing?”

Guardini then responds to his critics: “No, what the Sermon on the Mount demands is not everything or nothing, but a beginning and a continuing, a rising again and a plodding on after every fall”. My suggestion is that the path forward on climate change requires the same path that Guardini paves for the Sermon on the Mount – a genuinely Christian one. And this is exactly what Pope Francis has given us in Laudato si’. Let me explain.

            This curious parallel between climate change and the spiritual life is not original. The best book on climate change, by climate scientist Mike Hulme called “Why we disagree about climate change?”, makes this very point. Hulme argues that climate change is a very real threat but that to find a solution to this issue we need to explore how climate change can “bring the physical and the cultural, the material and spiritual, into a new realignment… a mirror into which we can look and see exposed both our individual selves and our collective societies” (2009, 357). This is also the central message of Laudato si’ with regards to climate change – a new realignment is needed: “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity…” for which we need “ecological conversion… whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (218).

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How to read Laudato Si: intention, structure, form and content

Catholics who do not embrace the spirit of Evangelii gaudium will likely be confused by Laudato Si

            In my previous article I already pointed out the 3 salient aspects of Laudato Si: its prophetic style, invitation to conversion and Trinitarian theology. I was going to technically discuss climate change in Laudato si’ vis-à-vis the latest policy and science on the issue. But before I do that, now I find a more urgent need to explain the way one should read Laudato si’, given the amount of perplexed and negative responses (mostly by Catholics) in the media.

I find many of these reactions quite embarrassing for so many who call themselves ‘sons and daughters of the Church’; not primarily because they dissent from the Pope, but because of the (poor) reasons they give for doing so. There are many non-Christians who are able to read and interpret Laduato si’ in a much more open, nuanced and sophisticated way, in the same spirit in which it was written.

My central thesis in this article is that, for Catholics, embracing the spirit of evangelization as expressed in Evangelii gaudium is a prerequisite for understanding Laudato si’. Most Catholics who oppose Ladudato si’ do so because they have a very limited idea what it means to evangelize.

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Book review: “Energy, Justice and Peace”

Energy, Justice and Peace

Energy is perhaps one of the most overlooked global issues of our times. One of the reasons for our obliviousness is that we tend to take energy for granted. The alarm clock that woke us up this morning, the water that flowed from the tap, the food (energy!) we ate for breakfast which allowed us to be productive and perhaps walk, bike or drive to work all tend to go unnoticed. Everyone, rich or poor, needs energy for life – it is a basic condition for human existence. Often times, many great complex global issues such as poverty and climate change evolve in grand narratives that steal the sunlight of our attention and cast energy in their shadow. However, it is impossible to find solutions for global poverty and climate change without tackling the energy dynamics embedded within them.

The Holy See’s latest publication “Energy, Justice and Peace” places ‘energy’ in the sunlight. The book offers a rich, informative account of global energy and provides a clear and balanced proposal on how to move forward. Guided by the social principles of the Catholic Church, “Energy, Justice and Peace” incorporates a breadth of perspectives that include theological, ethical and philosophical considerations along with the latest economic, environmental, political and scientific knowledge. The outcome is a well-rounded account that cuts through controversial and polemic debates and rather offers concrete and positive ways forward on energy and its related issues.

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Creatio Panelists Making an Impact

As we celebrate another Earth Day, its worth taking note of the impact of some of Creatio’s speakers on the environmental scene. Last week the Catholic News Agency published an article on the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s new book: “Energy, Justice and Peace: A reflection on energy in the current context of development and the protection of the environment.” The book was presented by Cardinal Peter Turkson, keynote speaker at the Creatio Rio Conference for WYD, and one of the authors was Tebaldo Vinguerra, also a panelist at the conference. Tebaldo was quoted by CNA: 

“Tebaldo Vinciguerra, an official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, underscored the need for a “green economy” which is concerned with the good of human persons, and not solely profits or the environment.

According to the pontifical council, the book “is not a geopolitical analysis, a planning document of a technical character or a universal scope, but rather a reflection meant to nurture other reflections, to inspire decision making on the part of competent authorities … to provide theoretical knowledge to those directly engaged in the field, and finally to increase public awareness of the question of energy.”

“The approach is interdisciplinary and general, as the work of the Pontifical Council was made in the light of the Gospel, the social teaching of the Church and its principles and criteria of judgement, without entering into technical-political details.”


In the frame of the WYD held in Rio de Janeiro last July, Duarte Costa, scientist from the University of Exeter in the UK, expert in climate change, wrote about this important issue, highlighting the idea of a necessary culture change to face the consequences of the climate change.


In the last decade, the interest in building a greater understanding of climate change and in finding ways to respond to it has dramatically increased beyond the scientific community. The  environmental  severity  and  socio-political  significance  of  this  problem  are  important reasons  behind  the  growing  relevance  of  the  climate  agenda.  Nonetheless, the uncertainty intrinsically associated with both the nature of the phenomenon  and with the limitations  in  computational  power,  that  has  made  the  climate change topic a highly debatable one across communities and countries. But in all this group of discussions are necessarily another one, the discussion of evangelization and culture change as a response and solution for our current human and natural problems.

Despite, we do not know exactly causes of the climate change, if this is result of greenhouse gas emissions from human sources or whether if it is a matter of natural variability of the system, I think that is important to distinguish climate change and climate variability. While climate variability is the normal oscillation of the system components and is responsible for different variability mechanisms at timescales ranging from years to centuries, climate change is the change in climate variability. In other words, while climate variability is responsible for the succession of weather conditions and its seasons and extreme events; climate change is the underpinning shift in the paradigm where the system finds its balance.

 The threat of climate change is precisely the fact that in the process of finding a new balance the climate system will drive most of the planet’s  environmental systems to a less manageable and resourceful life support for human prosperity.

 The core consequences of climate change for Latin America could be materialized in socio-ecological impacts ranging from loss of glaciers in Andes,  mangroves, coral reefs, biodiversity, deforestation and sea-level rise in coastal areas and change in  frequency of extreme events.  These environmental changes, far from solely disturbing the environmental equilibrium of nature and causing the loss of valuable resources, they necessarily have fundamental implications for human lifestyles and development, as humanity is intrinsically dependent on the environment. This evidence of a changing environment led by a changing climate that affects the optimal balance for human prosperity, should also contribute to demonstrate that the human race is an intrinsic part of the created natural world, thereby affecting and being affected by it.

 The Church, God’s assembly celebrating and witnessing His love, is also the place and the agent to  contribute not only in helping the afflicted and affected by climate change but also in promoting this conscience that God created the Earth for humankind as well as men and women for the Earth too. We are  intrinsically related with our planet by God’s willed creation and thus our collective and individual actions can naturally have an influence in the created world, whether if at the local, regional or global scale.

 Climate change is from its utmost root a unique environmental challenge, inasmuch as it is an Earth-scale problem with a human origin which has critical consequences for human prosperity, albeit  the  two  –  cause  and  consequence  – having very  different  geographic and socioeconomic features.  One  other  particularity  of  the  phenomenon  is  that  it  is  not  simply  a  result  of  bad governance distant from most  individuals’ lives, but rather it is dependent on our daily lifestyles, especially in our ways of producing and consuming goods and services. In fact, at the centre of such problem ais the difference in lifestyles and options between individuals, communities and countries.

 The Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains in his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate how the rise of  our current environmental problems is actually resulting from a deeper cultural problem whereby the human being and its actions are disconnected from the natural environment and not seen as an integral part of the created world:

 Truly, when the human being is set in its environment, fully understanding its role and, through faith its purpose and relation with the rest of Creation, he and she are more capable to protect and care for the environment, in whose balance its prosperity depends upon. The very recent encyclical letter of Pope Francis (with Pope Benedict’s collaboration) provides a good insight into how faith, can be a light in this need of caring for the natural created world.

 The solution proposed for such a problem of global charity and justice is the transformation of the current global culture in bringing the Truth and the Love that only God can provide (Caritas in Veritate c.52) to help mankind understand their place in creation. Ultimately, if the world lives and loves God more closely, elevating thereby the full dignity of human life, it is a natural and subsequent  result that the ecological life-support which we depend upon will too be elevated, cared for and bequeathed in good conditions to future generations.

 The question that Catholics are now facing is: If the world provoked a change in the climate as a result of an unsustainable, unjust and inequitable way of life, what can we do now as Catholics to change this?


Climate Change, IPCC reports and Pope Francis

Much has been said about climate change in recent times due to the last IPCC’s report, the Fifth Assessment Report. Here are some media articles on ABC and BBC, and a media debate about a meteorologists radical response here. Below is a video about how the information is spun to the general public.

But what does the report actually say? Well, the official summary is here and a briefer version here with headlines (thanks Duarte). A careful analysis by Roger Pielke Jr. however, shows that not that much has changed in this report. Below are Roger’s five conclusions, whcih he expalins in the article here:

1. The core scientific understandings remain unchanged

2. The IPCC itself is still engaged in PR spin and messaging

3. We will not be able to clearly distinguish the influence of that human influence from natural variability for decades:

4. Actions to mitigate climate through reductions in carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) will not have a detectable effect on climate until after mid-century.

5. There is not a strong scientific basis for claiming a discernible effect of human-caused climate change on hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought.

This is a familiar conclusion to readers of this blog, so I won’t belabor it (more to come soon on this). Here is what the IPCC SPM says about each looking out to mid-century:

  • Hurricanes (tropical cyclones):  “Low confidence” in both a “human contribution to observed changes” and “likelihood of future changes”
  • Floods: No comments in the SPM
  • Tornadoes: No comments in the SPM
  • Drought:  “Low confidence” in both a “human contribution to observed changes” and “likelihood of future changes”
The conclusions with respect to hurricanes and drought both represent a walking back from more aggressive conclusions reported in 2007, and should not be a surprise to readers here, as that is what the literature says. Kudos to the IPCC for getting this right.
The last point I reproduced in its entirety because of how the disaster information contrasts with the ABC video on climate change, suggesting a very tight relationship. The apocalyptic alarmism is apparent in the video and many media responses, but not in the actual report. For more detail see Roger’s latest post on disaster events alone and the IPCC 5 report here, and a comment on how to deal with climate change as opposed to more apocalyptic visions:

The IPCC should put to rest silly claims that action on emissions, even very aggressive actions, can have a meaningful effect on short-term weather and climate.Here is a prominent example of such a claim from Al Gore eight days ago:

Three years ago, Congress failed to put a price on carbon and, in doing so, allowed global warming pollution to continue unabated. We have seen the disturbing consequences that the climate crisis has to offer—from a drought that covered 60% of our nation to Superstorm Sandy which wreaked havoc and cost the taxpayers billions, from wildfires spreading across large areas of the American West to severe flooding in cities all across our country—we have seen what happens when we fail to act. 

 Now, what does all this have to do with Pope Francis? Well recently he met with cultural and academic representatives and gave an exegesis of the passage of the disciples of Emmaus in order to provide a diagnosis of the modern attitude to crisis, which falls into apocalyptic visions and catastrophism at large:

The hearts of the two disciples are filled with suffering and bewilderment at the death of Jesus; they are disappointed by how things have ended. We find a similar sentiment in our present situation: disappointment,disillusionment as a result of an economic and financial crisis, but also of an ecological, educational, moral and human crisis. It is a crisis that concerns the present and future of the history and life of man in our western civilization and that ends in affecting the entire world. And when I say crisis, I am not thinking of tragedy. When the Chinese want to write the word crisis, they write it with two characters: the character for danger and the character for opportunity. When we speak of crises, we are speaking of dangers, but also of opportunities. This is the sense in which I am using the word. Of course every age of history contains critical elements, but in the last four centuries, we have never seen the fundamental certainties that make up human life so shaken as in our time. I am thinking of the deterioration of the environment: this is dangerous, let us think ahead a little to the war over water which is to come; to social imbalances; to the terrible power of weapons — we have said so much about this in recent days—; to the economic and financial system which puts money, the god of money, rather than man at the centre rather than man; to the development and the burden of the media, with all of its positive aspects, of communications and of transportation. It is a change that concerns the very way in which humanity keeps its existence in the world going.

2. What are the reactions in the face of this reality? Let us return to the two disciples of Emmaus: disappointed at Jesus’ death, they show resignation and try to flee from reality, they leave Jerusalem. We can read these same attitudes at this time in history too. In the face of this crisis, there can be resignation, pessimism about the possibility of taking any effective action. In a certain sense it is “calling us out” of the same dynamic as the present historical turning point, by denouncing its more negative aspects with a mindset similar to that spiritual and theological movement of the second century A.D. that was called “apocalyptic”. We are tempted to think in apocalyptic terms. This pessimistic understanding of human freedom and of the process of history leads to a kind of paralysis of mind and will. Disillusionment also leads to a kind of escapism, to looking for “islands” or a reprieve. It is something like Pilate’s attitude of “washing his hands”. It is an attitude which appears to be “pragmatic”, but which in fact ignores the cry for justice, humanity and social responsibility and leads to individualism and hypocrisy, if not to a sort of cynicism. This is the temptation we are faced with, if we go down the road of disenchantment and disappointment.

At this point we wonder: is there a way forward in our present situation? Should we resign ourselves to it? Should we allow our hope to be dimmed? Should we flee from reality? Should we “wash our hands of it” and withdraw into ourselves? I not only think that there is a way forward, but also that the very moment in history which we are living urges us to seek and find paths of hope that open our society to new horizons. And this is where the role of the university is so very valuable. The university as a place for the development and transmission of knowledge, for the formation in “wisdom” in the deepest sense of the word, for the integral education of the human person. In this regard, I would like to offer several brief points of reflection.

a. The university as a place of discernment. It is important to interpret reality by looking it in the face. Ideological or partial interpretations are useless; they only feed illusion and disillusionment. It is important to interpret reality, but also to live this reality without fear, without fleeing, without catastrophism…

I think this theologic-sociological interpretation of our current condition can explain much of the draw within the climate debate towards an apocalyptic interpretation. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much with the climate, but the lowly and desperate gaze of human beings who have lost their transcendent horizon and are dormant towards the divine. WIth eyes opened to what is truly important, incorrect interpretations would perhaps subside. To the young people of Sardinia, the Pope gave them a message about what they should do facing the world’s crisis:

And journey on in this life with Jesus: the saints did it.They are ordinary people who instead of complaining “let down their nets for a catch”. Imitate their example, entrust yourselves to their intercession and always be men and women of hope! No complaining! No discouragement! Never be depressed, never go to purchase comfort from death: none of it! Go forward with Jesus! He never fails, he never disappoints, he is loyal!

St. Malo, the 1000(?) Year Flood and Climate Change

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St. Malo and Rocky Mountain National Park have been changed by the recent rains, and I was absolutely shocked by the power of nature. Cabin Creek which runs through St. Malo became a massive wall of water, trees, rocks and debris that completely reshaped the geography of Mt. Meeker’s eastern basin. The pictures above and video below gives an idea of the devastation. Having lived there for so long and known the trails and forest, the effect of the devastation is  shocking. The creek bed which was at most 10 ft wide is now over 50 ft wide. The pile of water, rocks and debris funelled out of the Meeker eastern face carving its way down the mountain and spread at St. Malo as an alluvial fan over 150 ft. wide, carving a new path for Cabin Creek in the process. The creek flow has now changed. One building is seriously demagaed and the other has disappeared. It appears that the mudslide began at the top of Mt. Meeker as a slide is visible from the distance.

See the video here:

Now, much debate has followed about the proportions and causes of the flooding in Colorado at large. Impressed by the power of this event, it is easy to want explanations. Many have used the term 1000 year flood, and Roger Pielke Jr. here and here explains why the term is not helpful at best, and in fact incorrect. The flood in fact is a 25-50 year flood:  Colorado has had a lucky streak, the last time Boulder flooded like this was 1894. He explains:

As is often the case in the aftermath of extreme events and disasters, people look for some way to put them into a bigger perspective. With respect to floods, a common way of establishing this perspective is through the N-year flood, which is defined as a flood with 1/N probability of occurring in any given year. So the 100-year flood, used in floodplain regulations, is a flood with an expected 1% chance of occurring in any given year.

Earlier this week, I presented some of my objections to the utility and meaningfulness of the concept of the N-year flood. In this post I show how the concept of the N-year flood can be used to turn fantasy into fact.

In an article titled “The Science Behind Colorado’ Thousand-Year Flood” Time magazine explains:

Parts of Boulder are experiencing a 1-in-1,000 year flood. That doesn’t literally mean that the kind of rainfall seen over the past week only occurs once in a millennium. Rather, it means that a flood of this magnitude only has a 0.1% chance of happening in a given year.Time is a fixture of the mainstream media and what is written there is widely read and repeated.

A big problem with Time‘s article is that Boulder did not actually experience a “1,000-year flood.” In fact, according to an analysis presented by fellow CU faculty member John Pitlick yesterday, using standard hydrological methods, Boulder experienced between a 25- and 50-year flood.

Apart from being incorrect, imprecise statements like this allow for implications, such as the association with climate change as a cause. Pielke Jr. explains here  why in this case, no particular cause can be identified by looking at the effect. However, one possible avenue of exploration for the uniqueness of this episode of rainfall, could be geological research on Cabin Creek. I am no geologist, but given the previous river bed width and depth, perhaps some interesting conclusions could be drawn about the proportions of the rainfall in this very localized and specific place.Furthermore, as part of Rocky Mountain National Park, this area is unaffected by human impacts. Geologically speaking, perhaps it has been 1000 years since Cabin Creek flooded like this, if ever ?