Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything
That’s what we all used to say. But it’s not true—at least,
now. Over the last century, scientists have been taking
accurate measurements that show an increase in global average
temperatures, especially in the last two decades.
That warming—estimated conservatively at 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit
over the last century and alarmingly projected to 10.5 degrees
F. by 2100—may not sound like much, but it can affect our
health (e.g., heart problems, heat exhaustion, malaria),
agriculture (from major changes in rainfall and drought
patterns) and wildlife. It can increase forest fires, melt
glaciers, raise ocean levels, flood places like New Orleans
and Miami, and return the Marshall Islands to the sea.
The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations
Environmental Programme established the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to explain the change and
predict possible impacts. The IPCC’s Third Assessment Reports,
approved in early 2001, explicitly blame most of the warming
on the “increase in greenhouse gas concentrations,” arising
from human activities.
The U.S. bishops, meeting in Atlanta June 14-16, accepted
the IPCC’s “convincing evidence that there exists, if not
a clear and present danger, then a clear and future one.”
They admit in their new statement, Global Climate Change:
A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good,
that they are making no independent judgment on the plausibility
of global warming or embracing any particular treaty, but
entering the debate “to call for a different kind of national
Taking the Moral Center
“At its core,” the bishops point out, “global climate change
is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor
about partisan advantage or interest-group pressures....It
is about protecting both ‘the human environment’ and the
natural environment. It is about human stewardship of God’s
creation and our responsibility to those who come after
Following the lead of Pope John Paul II, the bishops are
speaking out on a fundamental question that is both ecological
and ethical. They do not want to see moral concerns lost
in politics. They “especially focus on the needs of the
poor, the weak, and the vulnerable in a debate often dominated
by more powerful interests” and on true concern for the
sustainable development of developing countries.
The bishops insist that the virtue of prudence “allows
us to discern what constitutes the common good in a given
Something About the Weather
The IPCC blames greenhouse gases for the earth’s warming.
Greenhouse gases prevent some of the sun’s warmed air from
escaping back into space. Some of these gases—like carbon
dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone—occur
naturally, but certain human activities add to their amounts.
Carbon dioxide, for instance, is released to the atmosphere
when fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), solid waste
and wood are burned. Industrial processes also add powerful
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, “As an individual,
you can affect the emissions of about 4,800 pounds of carbon
equivalent, or nearly 32 percent of the total emissions
per person, by the choices you make in three areas of your
life. These areas are the electricity we use in our homes,
the waste we produce, and personal transportation.”
The bishops echo this: “Each of us should carefully consider
our choices and lifestyles....[W]e need to ask about ways
we can conserve energy, prevent pollution and live more
The United States, with four percent of the world’s population,
produces 23 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
While the bishops note that all nations need to address
the problem, the United States bears particular responsibility
and has the “significant wealth, technological sophistication,
and entrepreneurial creativity...to find useful responses....
“No strategy to confront global change will succeed without
the leadership and participation of the United States,”
the bishops say.
Yet on July 23 the United States was alone among major
nations opposing the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change. In Bonn, Germany,
178 countries hammered out the final details. The Kyoto
Protocol pledges all countries to reduce greenhouse gases
by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
U.S. opposition has centered on the cost to industry and
“I feel badly for us as a country that we have been put
into this position,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “It
will cost us in the long run, and it’s already costing us
in terms of credibility.”
The Bush Administration should rethink its nonsupport of
the Kyoto treaty, which has been four years in the making.
Isolationism and protectionism are not ethical responses
to such a pressing issue. Write the president and tell him
to support the Kyoto treaty.
Something must be done to preserve the fragile atmosphere
that guards our planet, as those spectacular photos taken
from space testify. Let’s act like this is the only earth
we have—for it is.B.B.
The bishops’ statement is available at www.usccb.org.