The Pope on climate change – Expert reaction

Pope Francis has made clear his views on the environment in a new announcement, recognising human activity as driver of climate change and calling on the Earth’s citizens to change their lifestyles to save the planet.

File_Pope_Francis_Korea_Haemi_Castle_19_(cropped) Pope_Francis_Korea_Haemi_Castle_19_(cropped)The Pope laid out his comments in an encyclical – a kind of papal open letter – addressing “every person living on this planet.”

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

A “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climactic system,” contributing to a “constant rise in the sea level” and an “increase of extreme weather events,” he writes.

“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” he adds.

You can read the full 183 page document here.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following expert commentary.

Professor Piers Forster, Professor of Climate Change, University of Leeds, said:

“Carbon dioxide doesn’t care where it is emitted – this makes climate change a global problem that requires international cooperation at an unprecedented scale. Anything the Pope can do to help this gets my blessing!”

Dr David Reay, Senior Lecturer in Carbon Management, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The Pope’s call for more action on climate change is timely and much-needed. As nations finesse their commitments for the global climate conference in Paris later this year, it is not just the weight of scientific evidence that will matter. Rather, it is the political and social acceptability of emissions cuts that will largely determine whether we get a deal in Paris that can avoid dangerous climate change. The Pope’s constituency is global and respect for his opinions extends far beyond Roman Catholics – all those pushing for a meaningful outcome from Paris just got a powerful helping hand.”

Dr Matthew Watson, Reader in Natural Hazards, University of Bristol, said:

“Today the pope has clarified the position of the Catholic Church on climate change.

The encyclical states that climate change is both dangerous and anthropogenic, counter to American right wing conservatives, who almost exclusively look to play down both attribution and impact.

“This puts the US politicians who ignore the overwhelming evidence on climate change in an uncomfortable position – many of their supporters place considerable stall in papal decrees and this one is unambiguous – start treating the planet better.

“Will it prompt a wholesale change in attitudes and behaviour? By itself I doubt it (we can hope). But it does represent a new battle front in the war on lies and misinformation that infuse the climate debate, and is window into a future where our effects on the planet are undeniable.”

Dr. Jeffrey S. Kargel, Senior Associate Research Scientist / Glaciologist, University of Arizona said:

“The call by Pope Francis to “care for the common home” is an urgent and needed appeal for public responsibility and political accountability on the matter of human-caused climate change.  There is no rational question about it: human overconsumption of energy derived from fossil fuels is remaking our world so rapidly that humans are not doing well to keep pace with it.  There are many scientific questions about climate change, many points of uncertainty, but the biggest uncertainties about future climate change actually pertain to whether politicians are able to make sound decisions or will refuse to do so.

“The Pope’s leaked statements about climate change– those I have read– are absolutely correct, for example, in attributing the bulk of glacier and ice sheet melting to human-caused climate change.  The best glaciological analysis to date indicates that climate change and its impacts are apt to accelerate through the 21st century and beyond. Our shared planet’s climate system has entered a period of upheaval that the world has never experienced since the dawn of civilization. During the remainder of this century, accrued human-caused climate change will more than double.  Already, the deglaciation of large parts of Greenland and Antarctica has been locked into the future by mainly human-wrought climate change of the past 100 years, so a doubling of what has already happened is indeed severe.

“Already, human-caused climate change has been felt by every common person– by mountain dwellers living amongst the glaciers, and by those who live in the lowland river valleys and near the seaside, by insurers and bankers and workers, by farmers and those who eat. Climate change already is felt across the globe in every nation and every state, province, city and village.

“The common person on the street knows that ice melts when we take it out of the freezer into a warm room, and likewise that glaciers melt during a warmer climate.  The common person knows that when a city’s water supply runs out, life changes and residents’ aspirations dwindle.  The common person knows that when nations run low on water, their power collapses and their people flee elsewhere.  The Pope is making a statement about something that seems a “no brainer” to scientists and the layperson alike, but somehow many politicians just don’t get or choose not to get it so that they can avoid hard decisions.”

Dr Chris Huntingford, Climate Modeller, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said:

“The world has around twenty research centres independently analyzing how on-going emissions will affect climate. Whilst there remains disagreement on the magnitude of changes, all project future warming and altered rainfall patterns. With so much of society tightly tuned to contemporary meteorological conditions, then either much must be done to mitigate emissions, or major adaptation planning is needed. In such a context, then views and interventions from people such as the Pope, who represent very large sectors of community, are welcome.

“The only word of caution is that if we hear excessively about climate change, then a home goal could be achieved where many end up believing warming is a “done deal” and so have no say in the matter. Yet it is the large-scale collective action of individuals that will have a strong control on future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Professor Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology, University College London said:

“For the last 25 years scientists have warned of the potential impacts of climate change if we leave our carbon emissions unchecked.  The Vatican has evaluated the scientific evidence for climate change and decided that the World must act to avoid the devastation of our life supporting ecosystem.  Pope Francis uses both scientific and moral arguments for the reduction in carbon pollution; to protect our environment and the poorest and most vulnerable people in the World who would be most directly affected by climate change. When theological, political and scientific leaders all call for rapid decarbonisation of our global economy it must be time we finally listen and create a binding international climate change agreement.”

Prof Gabi Hegerl, Professor of Climate System Science, University of Edinburgh said:

“As a scientist and a catholic, I am very pleased. It is encouraging that the pope bases his encyclical on scientific evidence. Spiritual leaders like the pope are in an excellent position to discuss the ethical dimensions of the climate change problem: justice between the developing and the developed world, stewartship of creation and preserving our amazing natural world. The pope is really living up to the example set by St Francis of Assisi.”

Revd Professor Michael J Reiss, Professor of Science Education, UCL Institute of Education, University College London and President of the International Society for Science & Religion said:

“The Catholic Church has over one billion members. It is therefore heartening that its leader, Pope Francis, is pushing it and the rest of us to take global climate change seriously. It is especially heartening that humans are held accountable and that the Encyclical is reported as emphasising that it is the world’s poor who will suffer disproportionately if climate change continues.”

Professor Andrew Watson, Royal Society Research Professor, University of Exeter said:

“I am not a catholic, but I’m more heartened by the pope’s leadership on this issue than that of any politician, academic or pop star. The spiritual leader of over a billion people has spoken out on climate change with the full authority of the Catholic Church, and I hope this may be the moment when the opinion of the whole world reached a turning point. It may be surprising to some, but the Vatican has a long tradition of keeping itself well informed about scientific issues, and Pope Francis has listened to his advisors. In the end, it seems that whether you approach climate change from a purely scientific and secular viewpoint, or from a spiritual concern for the Earth, you reach the same conclusion once you have the facts: the global ecosystem, which sustains us and all other living creatures, is being rapidly changed by our greenhouse gas emissions and we must take decisive action to curb them or face unknown and unintended consequences.”

Prof. Tom McLeish, FRS, Pro Vice Chancellor (Research), Professor of Physics, Durham University said:

“The Pope’s encyclical is a welcome example of the way scientific findings should inform the task of churches, and how serious faith-based thinking can assist the turning of scientific findings into action.”

Professor Andrew Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts, University of Leeds said:

“Human influence on the environment, when left unchecked, creates far more problems than it solves. Calls to action such as this are vital for empowering change.”

Declared interests

Tom McLeish:

As well as being a professor of physics I am also a lay preacher (‘Reader’) in the Anglican church, and the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014).  I was also in receipt of funding on a Templeton Foundation project with Prof. David Wilkinson (Durham) on ‘Equipping Religious Leaders in an Age of Science’, worth £770k 2015-2018