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Telling off the archbishop on climate change

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Last week George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop for Australia, questioned the morality of doing anything about climate change.  This was in the context of the annual lecture of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a british Climate deniers group (read here for a good backround article in the Guardian).

As usual in this kind of talks, there are remarkable leaps of logic in what was presented.  It is quite sad to hear this, especially as it comes from someone influential and highly articulate, who is likely to be sincere, and not just a shill for the industry.

He was careful to state that this speech reflects his own opinion, not that of the Catholic church (which it contradicts).

I will leave aside the role of the Catholic Church in environmental issues.  The church is often demonized for its stand on reproductive rights, which many environmentalists (including me) see as oppressive to women and promoting population growth.  But it has recently pronounced climate change a threat to humanity, at least.  Not so Archbishop George Pell.

Let’s start with some of the less outlandish statements.  In his speech, Pell declares that

The rewards for proper environmental behaviour are uncertain, unlike the grim scenarios for the future as a result of human irresponsibility, which have a dash of the apocalyptic about them. The immense financial costs true believers would impose on economies can be compared with the sacrifices offered traditionally in religion, and the sale of carbon credits with the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences.

I have to agree that all is not right in the world of carbon credits.  Yes, credits are aften used as if they were paid permits to keep polluting.  That’s not to say that they are wholly ineffective, however; the same cannot be said for indulgences.

It is also true that the results of any policy, environmental or otherwise, are always difficult to predict exactly.  But waiting for complete certainty is a sure fire recipe for paralysis.  I’m guessing that this is what the archbishop has in mind when he quotes “in dubio non agitur” (when in doubt, do nothing).  I think this reveals the true motivation: let’s not mess withn the status quo. This is deplorable; archbishop Pell, you have unwittingly declared yourself a supporter of the 1%, of injustice and oppression.  You are siding with those who deny hope to their fellow humans; and that is a cardinal sin, I need not tell you.

But let’s assume our good archbishop is unaware of this, and let’s see what else he has to say.  He repeats common denier canards:

My suspicions have been deepened over the years by the climate movement’s totalitarian approach to opposing views, their demonizing of successful opponents and their opposition to the publication of opposing views even in scientific journals. A point to be noted in this movement’s struggle to convince public opinion is that their language veers toward that of primitive religious controversy.

This, dear archbishoip, is very much the pot calling the kettle black – except that the kettle is still pretty new, with only a bit of tarnish, while the pot is black as sin.  The denier movement has benefitted from lavish donations from oil companies, including from the infamous Koch Brothers, public patrons of the arts and underhanded funders of attacks on the union movement, workers safety, environmentalists, or anybody at all who is active promoting social justice.  Heady company indeed, for someone denouncing totalitarian approach. Millions of dollars demonizing environmentalists, stacked against a few angry remarks from climate researchers.  And if any “opposing view” is banned from scientific journals, it is when and only when it is with respect to articles where the science is so shoddy as to beggar descrition.  Articles that critique global warming models, that point out inaccuracies in data or that propose other sources of climate variability are published and are welcome in the debate as they help the science move forward.  Anybody makes grumpy remarks when their theory is found to be wanting – that is not “demonizing” or “silencing opponents”.  No, I’m afraid that is something your august institution, the church, has much to answer for.

There are several other tropes that are always repeated by deniers, including archbishop Pell.  “First they called it global warming, but then they called it climate change, and when the climate changes no more than in the past, they call it anthropogenic climate disruption.”  Whew.  Yes, climatologists are fond of using changing terms.  Global warming is real, but climate change is more appropriate, as the real threat is not a gradual increase in temperature averages, but the variability in the climate – in storms and droughts, in particular.  And to be technical, all climatologists agree that the climate does change from natural causes, but this is a red herring: the worry is the change due to discharging greenhouse gases from human activity.  So it’s anthropogenic, and it’s a disruption – yes.  Now who is splitting hairs, here?

But “the climate changing no more than in the past”?  Sorry, yes it is, and it has a very clear human signature, alas.  There are now heaps of evidence but one of the better sites to access all of this is realclimate.org, which has just published a link to a great climate data guide.

There are several assertions of the same ilk, but I’d like to focus on the ones that seem to come fittingly from an archbishop’s mouth.  Take, for instance:

Remember Canute. The history of climate change provides no reassurance that human activity can control or even substantially modify the global climate.

Nice literary reference – King Canute was famous as a figure of hubris for ordering the tide to stop, which of course didn’t happen.  (Incidentally, the real king was canonized by the Roman Catholics for promoting said church, and made a patron saint of Denmark, but it seems the Danes mostly don’t care – hubris, huh?)  The implication is that climatologists are equally foolish and arrogant for thinking that humans can affect the climate.

That’s pretty rich, given that Pell is from an institution that has no problem with the literal claim that Joshua stopped the sun from moving at Gideon. And condemned Galileo for claiming that the Earth rotates around the sun, which creates a problem with Joshua’s account.  (I always had a hard time with this.  When Galileo was condemned, primitive clocks were common, and the modern concept of time divided in even intervals was already present.  Not so with the ancient Hebrews, however – they measured time by the sun.  The biblical passage seems to me a poetic way to suggest that the battle was so intense that time seemed to stand still – now why couldn’t the renaissance church see this?).

Honorably enough, archbishop Pell claims to worry about the poor, who may shoulder an unfair part of the cost of the fight against climate change.  How nice.  How convenient to forget that the poor are precisely the ones likely to suffer the most from climate change itself.  And that the environmental movement to fight climate change is precisely a movement for environmental and social justice.

Is archbishop Pell a devout, sincere person who genuinely believes that fighting climate change is immoral?  Such delusion would be very sad – though forgivable if someone has an open mind.  Or is it a more sordid example of someone working to preserve the status quo at all costs?  Many deniers see environmentalism as the rebirth of communism, and attack it by all means fair and foul.

I don’t know, bishop Pell.  But as I re-read your pronouncements, I suspect the latter.  Intellectual dishonesty.  Cowardice.  Aren’t they sins, too?

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Written by enviropaul

October 30, 2011 at 5:42 pm

One Response

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  1. Very good article and discussion. I am a bit surprised that this is a Australian Catholic as this seems to be closer to what I would expect of an American Catholic. I’ve encountered a number of American Catholics who often swallow the right wing’s propaganda whole heartedly, even if it is counter to chruch orthodoxy. I particularly love similar stances where they are anti-abortion, in line with the church, but support the war or the death penalty, contrary to the Vatican’s position. Maybe there is no room for nuance on the right.

    chris hauta

    November 2, 2011 at 8:40 pm


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