Houston, we have a problem

Sister of Mount Carmel Jane Remson, director of the Carmelite NGO that has standing with the United Nations, and Carmelite Father Eduardo Scarel discuss the reality of global climate change Feb. 12 and what Catholics can do about it.  (Caption)

Photo/Story By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Carmelite Father Eduardo Scarel, an Argentinian priest-climatologist who was a principal consultant to Pope Francis on his landmark 2015 environmental encyclical “Laudato Si,” likens the scientific case regarding global climate change to the 1970s when scientists found a definitive link between tobacco use and the incidence of lung cancer while, nonetheless, many people continued to smoke, saying cigarettes were not harmful.

While it is not possible to immediately end the use of fossil fuels as a global energy source – the burning of fossil fuels had been proven to create an extra layer of carbon dioxide that has raised the average surface temperature of the earth over the last century – Father Scarel told a workshop Feb. 12 that the science of recent climate change is undeniable.

And, he said, that sets up a choice: Either do something to begin reversing the problem or do nothing and hope it will go away. 

“The solutions are not in the encyclical, but we are intelligent and we can develop new ways and not bury our heads under the soil,” Father Scarel told an environmental justice workshop sponsored by the Carmelite NGO at Schulte Auditorium. “People say (climate change) is not going on. That is baloney. I say, ‘I believe in God – but climate change is a matter of fact.’”

Familiar skepticism

Father Scarel said the same skepticism arose 50 years ago when tobacco use was proven to increase the incidence of cancer.

“The doctor tells the patient he should stop smoking, otherwise it is highly probable he will die because of smoking,” Father Scarel said. “But the man says, ‘No, my doctor, I will never stop smoking because my grandma was 104 years old when she died, and she was smoking all her life.’ The doctor can only say, ‘Do whatever you want, but, reasonably, my statistics and medical science say there is a great relationship between smoking and lung disease.’ 

“In the same way, the climate is warning us. It is up to us to listen or to trust in random things – it may happen or it may not. Which is more reasonable? Sensible people will listen to science and will act immediately.”

Father Scarel suggested Catholics should start by reading “Laudato Si” for themselves.

“It is a thick book but it is not heavy to read because it is not a heavy, academic tome,” Father Scarel said. “It’s very simple to read and to digest.”

“Laudato Si” are the words used by St. Francis of Assisi in his hymn to creation and can be translated into English as “praise be to you, Lord.” While popes who preceded Pope Francis warned of a Christian’s duty to protect the environment, Father Scarel said this is “the first letter from a pope totally devoted to the care for the environment, to the care for nature, to (the call for) social and environmental justice.”

Care for poor and for nature

Pope Francis linked care for the environment and care for the poor “because we cannot care for the poor or care for their livelihood if the river behind their town is polluted or if they have no access to fresh water.”

“He also teaches us that it is a matter of knowing how to read the signs of the times,” Father Scarel said. “We need to read  the issues we are facing in hope, rather than in distress.”

Rather than be viewed as a policy manual, “Laudato Si” suggests that complex global problems – which have much different effects in various parts of the world – require dialogue.

“Pope Francis is not an engineer – he cannot provide that information,” Father Scarel said. “It is (our) duty to look at our own problems and our own solutions in dialogue.”

The encyclical also makes sure to point out that the church’s “preferential option for the poor” includes all creatures who are “affected by human activity.” The pope also raises the sobering question of what kind of a world will be left for “those who are coming in the future,” Father Scarel said.

Pope Francis asks people to treat the environment using the theological “method” inquiry: “to see, to judge and to act.” He raises several topics for reflection: 80 percent of global goods are consumed by 25 percent of the population; the loss of biodiversity and the increasing rate of extinction; energy depletion; and climate change.

“We live on an earth that is a finite place,” Father Scarel said. “The goods of the earth are limited. We are leaving fewer opportunities for future generations.”

It is indisputable, Father Scarel said, that the “blanket” that is essentially the earth’s atmosphere – and which keeps the earth warm – has grown much thicker and more rapidly over the last 250 years because of the widespread use of fossil fuels. The “blanket of the atmosphere” that was 280 parts of carbon dioxide per million in 1750 is now 405 parts per million – “45 percent more than in the pre-industrial era. That’s why we are having this warming planet.”

A thicker ‘blanket’

The global average surface temperature rose 1.1 to 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit between 1906 and 2005. The increase in greenhouse gasses and the reduction of carbon-absorbing forests has led to the thicker atmospheric blanket, and temperatures are expected to continue to rise.

This does not mean cutting all consumption of fossil fuels, Father Scarel said, because that would be impossible.

“It doesn’t mean ‘no more oil,’” he said. “We will continue drilling for oil, but not at the pace we are doing now because at the pace we are doing now is unsustainable concerning the climate. We need to foster investment in alternative, cleaner energies such as those related to the sun, the wind, the ocean waves, the rivers.”

People can begin making a difference by making changes in their lifestyles – recycling, walking, using more public transportation – “to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. And people can demand change with governments and businesses, he said.

“Businesses don’t want to lose their enterprise and lose money,” Father Scarel said. “We need to show them that developing cleaner, alternative energies is good business.”

The Carmelite NGO has developed a “Laudato Si” curriculum for students in elementary and second schools. For more information, go to carmelitengo.org.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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