Science and religion in accord on climate change

The release Thursday of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on the environment provides an opportunity to reframe the often dysfunctional climate change discussion in ways that respect the integrity of both science and faith.

While science and religion are often thought to represent divergent ways of understanding and acting in the world, our experience is that science (through the scientific method) and religion (through discernment) both value transparent, honest and civil dialogue to understand claims about climate change and its effects. As noted by Vatican Observatory astronomer Jesuit Guy Consolmagno, in discussing the relation between science and religion, “If you believe in truth, you are worshipping the same God I am.”

Climate change is not about red states or blue states, or about Catholic or Protestant, or about Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim beliefs. The key messages related to climate change are about physics and human choices.

Pope Francis’ encyclical affirms five science-based messages: Climate change is real. For the first time in Earth’s history, people are causing it. It is already harming people. Over 97 percent of climate scientists agree on these points. And we can limit the harmful effects of climate change if we choose to.

Many thousands of records of physical evidence associated with temperature, rising sea levels and melting ice all tell us unequivocally that the world is warming. Emissions from burning coal, oil and gas are the primary cause of this warming, as they have thickened the blanket of heat-trapping gases already in our atmosphere, thereby increasing the heat that remains in the climate system. Increases in heavy downpours, stronger hurricanes and more frequent heat waves are just some of the ways we’re already feeling the effects.

Pope Francis’ encyclical recognizes the moral dimension of these physical changes – the reality that the poor and disadvantaged, those who contribute least to climate change, are likely to suffer the greatest adverse effects. The pope’s message is consistent with a long-term commitment by faith communities in North Carolina and elsewhere to raise concerns about climate change and associated effects.

Here in North Carolina, the N.C. Council of Churches Climate Connection:

Interfaith Eco-Justice Network was founded in 1999. In 2006, North Carolina became the 16th state affiliate to the national Interfaith Power & Light movement, now active in over 40 states with over 18,000 engaged congregations. In 2013, 200 evangelical scientists wrote a letter to Congress, telling leaders that “climate change is real and action is urgently needed. The negative consequences and burdens of a changing climate will fall disproportionately on those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these’: the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.”

This month, with explicit reference to the encyclical, more than 300 rabbis from a broad spectrum of American Jewish life signed a letter calling for vigorous action to prevent worsening climate disruption.

While good science can lead to better decisions, science alone is not a sufficient basis for wise choices. We are struck by the challenge posed by our late colleague F. Sherwood Rowland, a Nobel Laureate, in his reflection that while we now have the science to understand climate change, it seems that we sometimes lack the willingness to make choices in response to what the science tells us. “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Human choices are values-based. Our choices have led to climate change, which poses grave existential risks for billions of the poorest inhabitants of the planet and for the rest of us. As human beings considering responses to climate change, we face choices with moral implications for current and future generations. Pope Francis reminds us that the values underlying our choices matter.

The good news is that the worst effects of climate change are not inevitable. The widespread interest and attention associated with Pope Francis’ encyclical create an opportunity to refocus the climate change conversation and set it on a more constructive path. A conversation that integrates fact-based assessments of climate change and pays attention to the effects of climate change on society’s values provides a scientifically and morally defensible footing for advancing the human values enumerated by Pope Francis and shared by so many of us.

Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University. Susannah Tuttle, M.Div., is director of N.C. Interfaith Power and Light and a staff member of the N.C. Council of Churches. Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication, also contributed.