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Cardinal casts humanity as 'ethical child' on environment

This past Thursday the Scripps Institute confirmed that monthly levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have surpassed 400 parts per million, not only for the first time in human history, but for possibly in more than a million years. Annual measurements taken since 1958 show that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by about 40 percent since humans began burning fossil fuels more than two centuries ago, and that there've been more greenhouse emissions in just the last forty years than the previous two hundred. Interviewed in Slate, Ralph Keeling of Scripps explains the significance of 400 ppm: "People like round numbers. When you hit a milestone you realize how far you've come. It's a little bit surreal. You think, 'Whoa, OK, not quite used to this one yet.' It's like having a round number birthday. It takes a while to identify with the new era you're in."

Yes, round numbers have clarifying effects, and I think Keeling's birthday analogy sits interestingly alongside something Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga said in his remarks opening the Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Planet, Our Responsibility conference now underway at the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of the Sciences: "[M]an finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child." For all the scientific and mathematical complexities we can comprehend, obvious milestones still seem necessary for us to think about things, well, more thoughtfully.

"The power of men over the means to their goals is incontestable," the cardinal continues,

both in terms of technological capabilities and with respect to the potentialities of scientific knowledge. However, this prowess is displayed in a difficult context where the goals may get fuzzy. The capacity of the 'how' collides with the lack of clarity of the 'for what,' as not everything that is possible is necessarily convenient for man. 

The purpose of the Vatican gathering isn't to focus specifically on climate change, but "to view Humanity’s interchanges with Nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs – Food, Health, and Energy – and ... to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on Nature’s ability to meet them.” Thus global economic inequality – not to mention unequal exposure to the effects of, and burdens imposed by, environmental degradation – are also big parts of the discussion. As reported by Dan Misleh at Catholic Climate Convenant, participants have talked about "the extraction of non-renewable resources often by distant corporations unwilling to recognize the impacts on low-income people," and have called for corporations to be reigned in while eliminating tax havens abetted "by governments like the United States, Great Britain and a few others." There was also this other passage from Cardinal Maradiaga's presentation:

In the face of the all-too-evident destruction of Nature, the current capitalist system cannot, on account of its very essence, attain sustainable development, as it engenders and feeds on inequity and social injustice, and is based on the unbridled and predatory use of natural resources, the anarchic production of goods and the encouragement of consumption with the goal of obtaining and concentrating profit.

Those words also have a clarifying quality, and with the conference continuing through Tuesday, maybe we'll hear more like them – thoughtful, inspiring, and impassioned language to consider alongside the hard round numbers of milestones. Or, to paraphrase yet another passage from the cardinal's remarks: Maybe our "'software - i.e., our ideas and values" can begin to catch up with our "'hardware,' which has focused for centuries on maximum growth and productivity."

(Andrew Revkin at the New York Times and Dan Misleh are blogging daily from the conference.)

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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There is ample evidence that our environment is in trouble. And we need prophetic voices to shake people out of their complacency. Enough conference, symposiums, and articles. We need politicians to advance these issues in their party platforms. A few concrete suggestions:

1. Moratorium on fracking.

2. Mandatory international (and that includes China, India and Russia!) emmission standards.

3. Generous tax rebates for new homes that utilize proven energy efficient appliances and subsidies for geothermal heating and cooling.

4. Enhance wind, solar energy.

5. Encourage use of public transportation, invest in rail infrastructure like the GoTrain in Toronto and Southern Ontario.


Cardinal Maradiaga's remarks are right on target, but there is little evidence of the political will or the economic insight to address this miltifaceted crisis. For example, in the most recent issue of "Foreign Affairs" (May/June 2014), there is a symposium devoted to the future of enery resources and their utilization. there is little discussion of the need to reduce overal energy consumption to levels that are environmentally sustainable. There are essays lauding the growthof fracking, proposing how to increase use of nuclear energy, electrifying automobiles, etc. The overall common theme is that there techniques presently available or nearly so that will solve the overall energy problem without any diminution in the overall amount of energy we use. There is no suggestion that we may well have to reduce overall energy consumption. The notion that we may have to make reductions is apparrently unthinkable.

In a prrevious thread, Jim Pauwels and I disagreed with eachother about the prospects for a fair and effective political and economic response to the multiple dimensions of the environmental problems. I was and remain fearful that these problems will be satisfactorily addressed. Certainly, the present economic regime of global capitalism is not promising and  its leaders show little sign of a willingness to reform that regime. Whatever conversation there is about this problem seems to presuppose that competition, not cooperation, is bound to prevail. If so, Then the future does look dim.

A rahaer surprising point is made at the Pontifical Academy site.  Apparently the scientists there think that the social sciences have not been sufficiently interested in incorporating the findings of the hard scientists into their (the soc. scientists') work.   Hmm.  Of course, historically there have been scientists who wouldn't consider the social sciences to be sciences in the first place, so maybe the non-conversation should not be surprising.


"Despite the conflicting intuitions, many people are convinced that scientific and technological advances, the accumulation of reproducible capital (machinery, equipments, buildings, roads), growth in human capital (education, skills), and improve- ments in the economy's institutions can overcome diminutions in natural capital. Otherwise it is hard to explain why so much of the social sciences in the twentieth century has been detached from the environmental sciences. nature is all too often seen as a backdrop from which resources and services can be drawn in isolation."


On the other hand, the scientists are concern with  "natural capital", an *economic* concept which means not simply "natural resources" (a very old concept) but, rather it refers to ecosystems that play a major part in sustainable human ecosystems which in turn are essential parts of wider economic systems.  I gather that "naural capital" definitely has a prominent role of Piketty's new economics, though fundamentalist conservative economists seem blind to its importance.


Oh, for educational systems that were truly inter-disciplinary. 


Also of note:   the conference will include one session on population.  Would love to be a fly on the wall at that one. 




George D writes,

2. Mandatory international (and that includes China, India and Russia!) emmission (sic) standards.

This stimulates what I believe to be some urgent questions:  What global agency would be empowered to enforce this requirement?  Would the ultimate level of force required include lethal force?

Would private citizens be imprisoned for violations? 

Would American citizens retain their constitutional rights?  Or would the U.S. Constitution be abrogated?

If great numbers of American citizens protested, would there be internment camps, or possibly re-education camps, set up?

I am not asking these questions to be a troll; but I do get nervous when mandatory international anything gets bandied about.  These are serious questions (and I admit that my formulations are not the best) that every American citizen needs to think about.

I would urge everyone to think seriously about these matters.


Obviously the binding force of any agreement whether torture, landmines or the universal declaration of human rights is primarily moral. Those countries that are signorities have a moral obligation to live up to those standards. And we have a moral obligation to hold our countries and elected official accountable.

Checks and balances need to be part of any governmental system. Certainly, the UN can be a useful service in providing external, peer review on compliance with certain standards. It is up to the country that signs and agrees with those values, to actually live up to them.

As for enforcement, that is a difficult question. I was at a conference where some Nigerian people were advocacting action against the practice of child brides. This was in direct violation to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which Nigeria is a signatory to. Currently, there isn't really any international body that provides consistent policing around some of these issues.

Ditto for child prostitution and exploitation. We need much better international cooperation. There is Interpol but still not universal.

But emission standards, for example, are a pretty easy enforceable target. Corporations and plants can be fined for not being compliant. And the regulatory body has to be the country that signs the agreement.

Another question which needs to be asked, which I am not seeing addressed much, is how soon might we see significant results if we did everything which is being recommended to ameliorate carbon emissions?  I think most people are assuming that if we went cold turkey, things could be turned around in maybe 50-100 years.  What I am reading is that 1000-plus years might be more realistic .I think one reason you don't hear this much is that it is a pretty hard sell to get people to support life-altering changes in order to change things a millenium into the future.  Which isn't to say that it isn't the right thing to do.  But people shouldn't kid themselves that things will "normalize" in a few years. As others have said, we need to be supporting renewable fuels (including research into safer nuclear technologies). Also carbon recycling technologies (not just carbon "sinking") so that carbon emissions can be converted to fuel again, more of a closed loop.  But it is dishonest if people are led to expect results they can see in their lifetime; and will lead to a backlash.

Katherine --

Thanks for the comment.  Makes sense.

Can you recommend any reliable sites on the net about the basics of the greenhouse gases problem that we non-experts might understand?  There are many ecology groups that take stands about these problems and put out their positions, but some of them seem to exaggerate the problem and others seem to understate them.  

Which scientists to trust is a great problem for us non-experts generally -- it's sort of a who-shall- judge-the-experts problem.






Here are some thought-provoking quotes attributed to authoritative people associated with climate change issues.  Self-disclosure: I have not vetted these quotations for provenance or context.

Quote by Ottmar Edenhoffer, high level UN-IPCC official: "We redistribute de facto the world's wealth by climate policy...Basically it's a big mistake to discuss climate policy separately from the major themes of globalization...One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore."

Quote by Timoth Wirth, U.S./UN functionary, former elected Democrat Senator: “We’ve got to ride the global-warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.”

Quote by Kevin Trenberth, a lead author of 2001 and 2007 IPCC report chapters: “None of the models used by the IPCC are initialized to the observed state and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed state”.

Quote by Richard Benedik, former U.S./UN bureaucrat: "A global climate treaty must be implemented even if there is no scientific evidence to back the greenhouse effect."


Of course climate change cannot be separated from themes of globalization nor can it be separated from the human ecology. The qutoe that Anne provided sums up the philosophical and also the political problem nicely. We have to think about issues of development, justice, economy, and natural ecology in a holistic frame of reference. Even development in eco-theology is important in this regard. Teilhard was a beginning, Thomas Berry was good on it and even though many do not take him seriously anymore Matthew Fox had some compelling directions. At any rate, this is a good quote from Ann and very apt.:

"Despite the conflicting intuitions, many people are convinced that scientific and technological advances, the accumulation of reproducible capital (machinery, equipments, buildings, roads), growth in human capital (education, skills), and improve- ments in the economy's institutions can overcome diminutions in natural capital. Otherwise it is hard to explain why so much of the social sciences in the twentieth century has been detached from the environmental sciences. Nature is all too often seen as a backdrop from which resources and services can be drawn in isolation."

To Ann:

Unfortunately, the climatology of earth and the greenhouse effect are not straightforward and obvious.  Even the term greenhouse effect is a misnomer but it's something people can relate to.  The problem of understanding climate gets complex fast.   I go to to keep up with the science.  I have a B.S. in physics and an M.S. in optical engineering which helps me follow the arguments but it's still a tough one to follow because even the commenters are technically savvy. is the other end of the spectrum, advocacy oriented as you've seen but a bit sloppy on the technical side.

I've mentioned a good review of global warming science at the American Institute of Physics website:

There's a website with 99 answers to denier myths at:

For my own part, at some point, even with better scientific training than most people, I quickly get out of my depth in this subject.  As far as who to trust is concerned, I trust the people who seem to be doing science, putting pieces of the puzzle together to get a better picture and fill in the blanks.  Those people seem to be Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, Raymond Pierrehumbert and most of the scientists who consider anthropogenic climate warming to be a problem.  On the other hand, I get a bad feeling when I see people who just seem to want to kick at the jigsaw puzzle pieces just in case a picture emerges.  That what the most credentialed climate change deniers like Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen seem to do.  They also seem to not want to converge on certainty as much as to diverge into uncertainty.  Reminds me of people who don't want to take a medical test because of what it might show.  Roy Spencer is also a creationist.   I don't know what kind of creationist he is, but if he's the earth is 6,000 years old type, I don't know how he deals with even the last ice age and why it ended.

Ann, I'm very much a non-expert.  When I started looking around for some realistic estimates of how much time we were looking at to see significant progress in reversing the effects of global warming, I was thinking, maybe, 50 years. So I was surprised to find no sources which indicated that it would be anywhere near that short term. Here are some links (which I can't vouch for, but seem somewhat credible):



Sorry, there appears to be a typo in the second link, hopefully this is right:

Bob ==

Thanks for the quotes.  They're fine examples of the sort of contradictory statements we get from the authorities.  My problem (besides my pitifully small understanding of the science) is that there are just so *many*authorities.  Whom to trust?  There's the problem of their understanding of the available science, and there's also the problem of predictions on the basis of that science.  The problems are so  complex and the data so humongous that I don't even know whether there are computers powerful enough to handle all the if-thens, either-ors, and therefore's.  Add to the psychological problems -- scientists aren't immune to bias -- narrow minds, unwillingness to admit error, axes to grind, etc., etc., etc.

But it would be madness not to try to find the best available authorities.  So how to go about choosing them?  Well, obviously, we non specialists have to trust that the scientists with the best reputations.  They have the reputations they do because there is reason to think that they are honest,  their studies have been shown to be repeatable and have withstood scientific criticism, and their views are consistent with other solid scientific findings.  Unfortunately, reputable scientists sometimes disagree.  Quadruple sigh.  But it seems that there is at least a consensus among *all* the scientists, including the winners of the major prizes in science, that global warming is real, getting stronger, and that human beings are at least one of the causes of it, if not the single cause. That's enough to go forward trying to find other possible causes and to reduce our input into the problem.  I simply cannot see how we can rationally not reduce the emissions drastically that are *at least* one major cause of the problem.

Stanley --

Thanks so much for the American Institute of Physics site!  Even I can understand it, and if we can't trust that group, then whom can we trust?  

In one of its sub-sites, "Other Greenhouse Gases", I notice that one of the main researchers in the area is V. Ramanathan.  He is one of the co-directors of the Vatican conference.  Apparently the Vatican is going for really first-rate people.

One of the things that Ramanathan discovered is that much to the surprise of even the scientists one single atom of an aerosol (CFC) can do as much damage to the atmosphere as 10,000 molecules of CO2.  He was taken seriously, and a lot of the CFCs emissions have been eliminated since then.  Unfortunately, the stuff used to replace he CFCs is very bad.  Looks like industry gets the last word always.  :-(  That whole sub-site is fascinating.  Termites, for instance, emit a significant greehnouse gas, as do all the rice paddies in China, and cows!  What  complex soup the atmosphere is.  

The other sites look very informative too.  Thanks.  

Katherine --

Thanks for the sites.  I had no idea that Nature would have a free site on the net :-)

Unless I'm misreading the comments on this thread, I take it that the various sorts of uncertainty about the scope of the environmental problem lead some commentators to think that we do not know enough to conclude that major changes to the way we now live are necessary. Or perhaps the conclusion is that we know too little for it to make sense for us to know what steps might turn out to be genuinely remedial. Let me suggest thqt the appropriate staating point for remediation is the  twofold conviction that (a) we must make significant chnges in the way we use and deplete natural resources and (b) we must rethink and bewilling to modify the kinds of political and legal control we are prepared to live with. Without this latter provision, I would have to agree that the situation looks hopeless. To achieve (b) is itself practically nearly hopeless, but does remain within the scope of what human beings are capable of.

So far as I know there is no respectable significant body of thought that deniew the depth of the problem we face if we do not change our way of living. Admittedly, there is no guarantee that we know enough to avoid catastrophe.

What's the conclusion? Shall we wait for compelling evidence that we know what is genuinely beneficial? Or shall we take our best shot, given the vast uncertainties? All this is, I think, unprecedented. So far as I can see, the only prospect that has some chance of coping successfully with our ecological problem is drastically curbing our iconsumption of our resources. The chance that we will do so successfully is slim. But what is the alternative?

I admit that I very much hope that my view is badly mistaken. If you think it is, please tell me why you find it so.

I can remember that, in a 1970's physics course (on my way to an electrical engineering B.S.), we were solemnly warned that the earth was entering an ice age.  This was expressed with the same certainty as is used now by the "global warming" authorities.  The bottom line is that the system comprised of the earth and the sun is not now and never was a system in stasis.  It has been changing from it's beginning, is now, and will always be changing.  It is a gigantic and complex "machine" if you will, and the computer models used by the scientists is, to put it mildly, simplistic in the extreme.  There is no "normal" climate, no starting point with all the data points and variablesLet nothingdisturb thee/Let nothing dimay thee/All things pass/God alone sufficiently defined, and defined with sufficient aqccuracy, to predict anything other than uncertainty.

From the available information, I have concluded that today's crop of global socialists have fastened onto "man-made climate change" as the surest way to establish a universal totalitarian police state in order to correct "income equality" (which is never defined).  Of course, certain sociological groups will be exempt from the necessarily harsh methods that will be required: the international glitterati (you know, the libertine blow flies of Hollywood, Fashion, entertainment), the crony capitalists (like Obama's banker buddies), the old New Left heroes and the like.

Include me out.

     "Let nothing disturb thee/Let

      nothing dismay thee/All things

      pass/God never changes.

      Patience attains/All that it

      strives for. He who has God/

      Finds he lacks nothing/God

      "alone suffices."

Teresa of Avila

Bob  --

You're a denier.  That 99 responses to deniers site is made for you.  Check #2, among others.  

That a scientist like you can thumb your nose at the probabilities that seem to be operating at the moment (and the vast, vast majority of the world's other scientists)  -- that's really amazing.  Do you have some secret oracle that has let you know that all those other scientists are incompetent or liars or both, or what?

From the available information, I have concluded that today's crop of global socialists have fastened onto "man-made climate change" as the surest way to establish a universal totalitarian police state in order to correct "income equality" (which is never defined).

From the available information, I have concluded that it would be unwise for me to travel to the so-called Southern Hemisphere, lest I fall off the earth into the abyss. Besides, I don't want to hurt any of the turtles.

Oh, so *that's* where all hose turtles are!  Hmm.


Sticks and stones.  Since you can't refute what I said, you call me a name; I would have expected better from you.

Bob S. --

Didn't you deny that there is a climate threat that we should try to reverse at least in part?  Saying you are a "denier" just states that simple fact -- you deny the threat and that we should take action..  That's not name-calling. 

Bob S. --

Didn't you deny that there is a climate threat that we should try to reverse at least in part?  Saying you are a "denier" just states that simple fact -- you deny the threat and that we should take action..  That's not name-calling. 


Now, now, Ann. You could hurt a person's feelings by calling him what he manifestly is and by failing to refute arguments he hasn't made.

If someone says, "I'm skeptical about man-made climate change, and here are my reasons for doubting it," and he then goes to the actual trouble of making an argument that takes account of other people's work, he deserves a fair response. But if it's "everything has always been variable, so there is no point in looking for anomalies or for any significant change that may have been introduced recently," that's like saying, "Don't bother investigating a suspicious death as a possible homicide, because, you know, people die of natural causes all the time." Citing Teresa of Avila is, I admit, innovative.

For the rest of it, terms like "global socialists," "universal totalitarian police state," and "Obama's banker buddies" are not arguments at all, but fumes from the fever swamp. They tell us a great deal about any person who uses them, but nothing at all about the truth or falsity of the science of climate change. And for evaluating its claims, the evidence presented here suggests that a B.S. in Electrical Engineering may be less useful than one in Egyptology or Classics.

To Ann,

Happy you liked the links and that you are already using them to effect as I can see.  Denial is a very powerful and dangerous component of the human psyche, procrastinating when action is required.  

Ouch!  Well, back to the fever swamp...

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