In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Dean Kuipers humorously reports on the 2011 “Climate B.S. of the Year Award” – with the B.S. standing for “bad science” – that the Pacific Institute announced it was awarding to all of the current candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination. While the award itself imparts a more lighthearted response to climate change skepticism, the reality of its message is quite serious. As the Pacific Institute notes, “Not a single one of the Republican candidates for president has a position on climate change that is consistent with the actual science accepted by 97-98% of all climate scientists and every national academy of sciences on the planet.” This is a disturbing trend.
Many within the crop of candidates vying for the GOP nomination have expressed disheartening, and at times even startling, views on climate change. Rick Perry, an outspoken skeptic of man-made climate change, has asserted in debates that “the science is not settled” on the issue, and has called global warming a “scientific theory that has not been proven.” Ron Paul, appearing on Fox Business television in 2009, decried global warming as a hoax. Rick Santorum publicly has referred to climate change as “junk science.” As a guest on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, Santorum described climate science as some kind of left-wing conspiracy designed to empower the federal government’s regulatory authority – a notion that effectively places the majority of the world’s scientists into the unlikely realm of pure political scheming. Mitt Romney has expressed more moderate views on climate change, noting his belief that while climate change is occurring, “…we don’t know what’s causing [it].”
Not all Republican politicians are climate change skeptics. Both Senators from Maine, Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, have supported and even drafted climate and clean energy legislation. Jon Huntsman, who up until recently was part of the GOP presidential race, initially stood out as the only candidate to declare his strong support for climate science – until, that is, he shifted to a more neutral position, seeming to succumb to pressure to hold the party line. Even Newt Gingrich expressed activist climate views as recently as 2008. Appearing in a television ad alongside then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich urged swift, bipartisan action on climate change. He has since voiced his regret at appearing in the ad.
Science and politics come to an unfortunate juncture in the climate change debate, as climate change opponents in the political arena frequently cling to – and distort – the nature of the scientific process. These deniers often emphasize the theoretical component of climate change (“It’s just a theory!”) as an attempt to discredit the science behind it. That “theory” in scientific method does not equate to “theory” as it is used in everyday vernacular is not explained; this, in turn, becomes an unfortunate justification for those who choose to view climate change as a matter of abstract belief or disbelief instead of one that is grounded upon genuine and well-documented evidence. Such semantic distortion unjustly minimizes the seriousness of an issue affecting our global community.
In essence, the issue of climate change has become partisan and politicized to a harmful degree. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated that global climate change “… is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family…It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.” As indicated by the USCCB, Catholic social teaching encourages us to be stewards of the environment as part of our moral responsibility to care for God’s creation – not only for our own sake, but for that of future generations. It is a critical part of our obligation to work for the common good.
The bishops note that we should utilize the virtue of prudence to address climate change. Indeed, a prudent approach involves recognition of the potentially devastating effects that we face without action on this issue – particularly in relation to those most vulnerable populations worldwide. Many of the communities who are most immediately threatened by the effects of climate change are also those who are already impoverished. Threats to the agricultural sector, as well as coastal flooding, carry devastating implications for vast populations in developing nations. According to the majority of scientists worldwide, these trends are not only possible, but very likely to occur.
Pope Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate that “[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others.” Upholding our moral responsibility toward the environment requires us to value and to protect those who inhabit it. Respect for life, as well as caring for the dignity of the human person, are integrally related to our environmental responsibilities.
Climate change is indeed a moral issue – one that we, and our political representatives, must confront as the realities of its effects become increasingly apparent in our world, a world our Catholic social teaching tells us is ours to protect.