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As a scientist, is the pope dodging the biggest contributor to climate change?

BY   September 23, 2015 at 4:01 PM EST
Monument to Nicholas Copernicus. Photo by Krzysztof Dydynski and Getty Images

Monument to Nicholas Copernicus. Photo by Krzysztof Dydynski and Getty Images

Once you’re a scientist, you’re always a scientist, and Pope Francis was once a scientist. In recent years, the pope’s outspoken views on issues like the environment seem to reveal his familiarity with life in a lab. Some scientists applaud his efforts to filter empirical knowledge into theology. But for others, Pope Francis embodies the Catholic Church’s long history of stopping short of being totally pro-science.

Before attending seminary and eventually becoming the Bishop of Rome, Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent his early adulthood as a food chemist. His education in chemistry would be on par with obtaining a technician certificate or degree from a junior college, said Father Thomas Reese, who believes that training has a profound influence on the pontiff’s approach to climate change.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” Pope Francis wrote in an encyclical — a letter of Catholic doctrine — published this June. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Entitled “Laudato Si: Our Care for our Common Home,” the document tackles the ongoing perils of global warming, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss. The letter pulls from environmental rationales backed by decades of research. It calls out climate change deniers and confronts the nuanced economic drivers for man-made climate change. “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay,” Pope Francis writes.

Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, said no pope sits down to write an encyclical without help and suggestions from experts at the Vatican.

“However,” he added, “this was clearly a document written by someone who understands physical science…somebody who knows what an infrared absorption spectrum is and understands the difference between carbon dioxide and methane.”

Yet the Pope’s policy stops short of addressing a major contributor to man-made climate change: population control.

“Every person that we add to the planet increases the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere, so population growth is one of the great drivers of climate change, said Stanford University conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich. “If we keep the population growing, it seems highly likely that the climate problem will get totally out of control.”

Plus, more people on the planet means more people who are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Urban centers across the globe congregate around coasts and ports, which are threatened by sea level rise.

“Then you have to look at the problem of feeding humanity,” Erlich said. “Climate is absolutely critical to our agricultural activities, and we already have 800 million starving. Another billion or two that are [micronutrient-deficient] or malnourished. The more people that we add to the planet, the bigger that problem becomes. Climate change makes it harder to sustain everybody.”

In the encyclical, Pope Francis writes that the sustainability issues of growing populations could be addressed by redistributing wealth, fighting food waste and stopping runaway consumerism. But Ehrlich argues the encyclical is dodging the real solution — contraception — since it runs contrary with Catholic tradition.

“If the church were to bring forth a plan to address the population problem, the very first thing should be the push for equal rights for women everywhere. The second thing should be to make access to modern contraception and backup abortion available to everyone,” Ehrlich said. “Those two things should solve the population problem by bringing about a gradual decline in the size of the human population to a sustainable level. We would have a long way to go and it would need to be done carefully and humanely, but that’s the way to at least start on it.”

The pope deserves credit for intervening on issues like climate and capitalism disruption, Ehrlich said, but society “should keep pushing in the right direction to change the rest of the story.” (For more, see Ehrlich’s co-authored commentary in Nature on Pope Francis’ new climate policy.)

“What’s the meaning of the church in the evolutionary universe? What’s the meaning of Christ when there might be intelligent life in millions of galaxies?” Reese said.

Catholicism has a mixed history of supporting scientific endeavor. Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was a cleric, whose principles on a heliocentric solar system would serve as part of the basis for Galileo Galilei’s persecution by the Catholic church.

Both Reese and Miller argue that this opinion paints an outdated picture of Catholicism’s relationship with science. For instance, Pope Francis surprised some last October by announcing his support for the Big Bang theory and evolution. “We run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

Miller viewed this as the least surprising news story of 2014, given some of the theoretical foundations for the Big Bang theory were published in 1927 by Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître. Just a few years earlier, friar Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants and heredity were rediscovered and ultimately helped to broaden the acceptance of Darwinism. Eventually in 1950, the reigning pontiff — Pope Pius XII — issued an encyclical saying that Catholics could accept Darwinian evolution, as long as they cite God as a contributor.

“An awful lot of people thought Francis’ announcement meant the church was finally admitting that evolution and the Big Bang are real. The truth of the matter is, especially with the Big Bang, [the church] always has,” Miller said.

The Catholic Church, Father Reese said, is no longer at war with science. That’s ancient history, he said. Modern Catholic scientists helped design NASA satellites and run the Vatican observatory, an international network of stations peering into the stars. Plus scientific research is a mainstay at Catholic universities like Georgetown and Notre Dame.

Today, Reese said, the main challenges lie in integrating scientific knowledge into theology.

“What’s the meaning of the church in the evolutionary universe? What’s the meaning of Christ when there might be intelligent life in millions of galaxies?” Reese said.

The Vatican has held conferences to learn about stem cell research. Pope Francis still rejects the field, despite its medical promise.

But by facing such questions, Reese says that followers of the faith can make better informed ethical and moral decisions, which is one of the primary purposes of religion.

“The Catholic church will argue that science has one domain, while religion and ethics occupy another,” Reese said. “Science can tell us how to split the atom, but religion will tell us that using it as a weapon is bad. Science can’t answer the ethical questions. It can tell us how humankind evolved, but it can’t tell us our purpose in life.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to cite a special issue of commentaries on the Pope’s views on climate change, which was released by Nature after our initial publication.

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