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Cool Thinking About Global Warming

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

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 discussion.”

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 us.”

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 situation.”

Do 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 gases.

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 simply.”

Get With Kyoto

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 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 monitoring procedures.

“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

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