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Diary of a Tree Stump

Something lighter:                                    

  “I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”

   [Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...

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The Pope Moves the Church


Sunday July 05, 2015

[This essay appeared in the Financial Times on July 3, 2015]
 

Free market conservatives hate it, it fails to address the threat of overpopulation, and it dismisses carbon credits as a way to combat global warming. Nonetheless Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, will ultimately be recognised as one of the most significant events in the modern environmental movement. Above all, it takes a big step towards healing a breach between western religions and nature that dates back to the dawn of monotheism.

Francis goes much further than Pope Paul VI, who more than 40 years ago inveighed against the “ill-considered exploitation of nature”. He explicitly recognises and explores the link be­tween what he construes as a warped interpretation of dominion — an interpretation that relegates nature to mere stuff put at humanity’s disposal — and the wanton despoliation of the planet. His encyclical builds on the thinking of the many Christians who mined Biblical texts to support the notion that the creation is sacred. The Pope cited his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who averred “through the greatness and beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker”.

It is no overstatement to say that the present, human-wrought, sixth-great extinction crisis — the biggest die-off in species since the dinosaurs — as well as the climate crisis that may prove our undoing, are a result of the view of dominium Pope Francis seeks to bury. Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, recognised this nearly 50 years ago. He argued in an essay on the origins of pollution that the arc of western religion has been to get the gods off our back so that humanity can do business. This started in ancient Greece, where moral space for exploiting nature was created by moving the gods out of the trees and exiling them to Mount Olympus.

The advent of monotheism took this further by bundling the deities into one God and placing Him in outer space. Throw in the Protestant revolution, which made material success virtuous, and it was but a short step to the throw­away consumer society Pope Francis rails against.

The conclusion that humanity is intrinsically different from the rest of nature made sense to early Christian thinkers, given that they rarely encountered any creature that suggested continuity between animals and people. By contrast, in central Africa, great apes provided a constant reminder for the animists that nature is a continuum. It is notable that the version of Genesis recounted by Josephus — a Zelig-like figure of Roman times who was first a Jewish general, then an adviser to the son of the Emperor Vespasian and also an important historian — states that humans could talk to the animals before the fall, an explicit statement that knowledge and intellect separate us from the rest of the natural order. Over the years, the text and the interpretation changed; instead of being a curse, the knowledge that caused our alienation from nature morphed into a glory.

Fast forward to 1962, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring marked the dawn of the modern environmental movement, awakening the world to pollution. A few years later there was some success in teaching language to chimpanzees, which may ultimately have done more to undermine the concepts of human nature that supported the moral justification for our abuse of nature.

Today, attitudes about animal intelligence have shifted to the point where US courts have permitted filings arguing that chimpanzees should be regarded not as property but persons. An un­thinking sense of entitlement has given way to an honest struggle to reconcile acknowledgement of our ties to nature with the functioning of a modern industrial society — the same conundrum Francis addresses in his encyclical.

Indeed, there is proof in the encyclical that the Pope is mindful of the conundrum posed by recognising that nature is sacred in a modern industrial society. In paragraph 90, he acknowledges that humanity must accept its responsibilities without the divination of nature paralysing all economic activity or eclipsing the plight of the poor. There is no easy way to achieve that balance, but even the subtle shift from entitlement to respect and awareness of life’s interconnections could work wonders.

Thus religion, at its most profound, changes. Two decades ago I asked James Parks Morton, then dean of Saint John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral in New York City, how the Church could reconcile the idea of respect for nature with an ethos that for centuries has viewed nature as mere stuff. His simple answer was that a cathedral’s transept was the centre of the soul of its community; and, if the centre moved, the church had to move. Pope Francis is trying to move the church. Laudate Papa.

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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