Friday, May 1, 2015

Climate Change, Science, and the Vatican

The 'Vatican science academy' is in the news again: this time because they've said we should use our brains. The topic was climate change, which tends to stir up sound and fury more than rational discourse.

Meanwhile, one scientist implied a link between our "carbon dioxide crisis" and a lot of dead critters, some 201,000,000 years back. More to the point, I think, the team he was on has added a few more pieces to the puzzle of what caused the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event.
  1. The 'Vatican Science Academy:' Climate Change Matters
  2. "Carbon Dioxide Crisis?"

Individuals and the Common Good

Under the Code of Ur-Nammu, the fine for perjury was 15 shekels of silver. A Tyrian shekel weighed four Athenian Drachmas, but that was a couple thousand years after Ur-Nammu's time.

Ur-Nammu, Shulgi, or someone else, wrote up the Code of Ur-Nammu, both of them died about 4,000 years ago, and that's another topic.

Money — Tyrian shekels, Delphic staters, U.S. dollars, whatever — has been important for a very long time. The same goes for remembering what money can and can't do.
"The covetous man is never satisfied with money, and the lover of wealth reaps no fruit from it; so this too is vanity."
(Ecclesiastes 5:9)
Being rich or poor is okay. Having money isn't a problem: loving the stuff is. (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2544, 2546)

So is misusing wealth.

Each of us is a unique individual: someone, not something. We're made in the image of God, rational creatures with equal dignity. But we're not all alike: and aren't supposed to be. These differences include age, physical abilities, and wealth. (Catechism 357, 1934-1938)

We can use our differences as opportunities for generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods. Or we can decide to misuse them. (Catechism, 1937-1938)

Respect for the individual person is necessary for the common good. So are rules and customs which allow individual freedom and provide the food, clothing, shelter, and care each of us needs. All that requires peace. (Catechism, 1905-1912)

The principles we should live by haven't changed, and won't: Love God, love neighbors, see everybody as a neighbor. (October 26, 2014; April 18, 2012)

The ideas are simple. Living as if they matter — isn't.
"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."
(G. K. Chesterton, in "What's Wrong with the World," Part I, Chapter V, via

1. The 'Vatican Science Academy:' Climate Change Matters

(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The conference said there was an 'unthinking infatuation' with GDP"
(BBC News))
"Vatican presses politicians on climate change"
Roger Harrabin, BBC News (April 28, 2015)

"The Vatican Science Academy has challenged politicians to end their 'infatuation' with a form of economic growth that is ruining the Earth.

"The academy said that nations were measuring their wealth by GDP (Gross Domestic Product), taking no account of the harm caused by business practises.

"It urged countries to act as stewards of God's creation.

"The statements are likely to influence the Pope's coming Encyclical on climate change...."
Hats off to Roger Harrabin and BBC News, for leading with "the Vatican Science Academy has challenged:" not "the Vatican has...."

I've talked about the 'Vatican science academy' before. (October 2, 2011)

The outfit's name in my language is The Pontifical Academy of Sciences. (

They focus on: fundamental science; science and technology of global problems; science for the problems of the developing world; scientific policy; bioethics; and epistemology, a branch of philosophy that examines the nature of knowledge.

Their goals go a bit beyond 'pure' science:
  • Promoting the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences, and the study of related epistemological questions and issues
  • Recognizing excellence in science
  • Stimulating an interdisciplinary approach to scientific knowledge
  • Encouraging international interaction
  • Furthering participation in the benefits of science and technology by the greatest number of people and peoples
  • Promoting education and the public's understanding of science
  • Ensuring that science works to advance of the human and moral dimension of man
  • Achieving a role for science which involves the promotion of justice, development, solidarity, peace, and the resolution of conflict
  • Fostering interaction between faith and reason and encouraging dialogue between science and spiritual, cultural, philosophical and religious values
  • Providing authoritative advice on scientific and technological matters
  • Cooperating with the members of other Academies in a friendly spirit to promote such objectives
    (Pontifical Academy of Sciences)
I don't have a problem with that, but I'm an American: so finding practical applications for knowledge is part of my cultural heritage.

As for Mr. Harrabin's assertion that "the statements are likely to influence the Pope's coming Encyclical on climate change" — I'd be surprised and disappointed if they didn't.

I figure that the Pope isn't stupid, and cares enough about the encyclical to pay attention to informed opinions.

Stewardship and the United Nations

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Bishop Sorondo says Christians are obliged to be stewards of the Earth"
(BBC News))
"...The Church is hoping to make an impact in a year of key UN meetings on Sustainable Development Goals, development finance and climate.

"The Encyclical is expected to describe action to cut emissions as 'a moral and religious imperative, highlighting the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people - especially the poor, children, and future generations'.

"The Pope is hoping to build agreement among all religions on the moral obligation to protect the environment.

"Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who heads the Academy, said the Encyclical would not be the highest level of proclamation from the Pope, which is reserved for issues of Faith.

"But he said it was important for all the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to take it seriously. If any Catholic wanted to ignore it they would need 'very good reasons - based not on personal or political opinion, but on science'...."
(Roger Harrabin, BBC News)
Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo has been Chancellor of The Pontifical Academy of Sciences since October 1998. What he's quoted as saying is pretty much what the Church has been saying.

One of our jobs is having "dominion" of this world's resources. (Genesis 1:27)

That's "dominion," not ownership.

Our position is sort of like a steward or shop foreman: complete with authority and responsibilities. Making reasoned use of the world's resources is part of our job. So is making sure that future generations have what they'll need. (Catechism, 339, 952, 2402-2405, 2456)

This world is God's gift to humanity — for all of us. Private property, personal ownership of part of the world, is okay: provided the owner acquired and uses it ethically. (Catechism, 2402-2405)

The right to private property isn't absolute, though:
"Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.189"
(Catechism, 2406)
Political authority isn't absolute either: or shouldn't be. (April 26, 2015; March 12, 2012)

The United Nations meetings mentioned in the article are probably the United Nations Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda in New York City, running from September 25 to 27 this year.

I figure some folks will assume that whatever the Summit comes up with is a bad idea because it comes from the U.N. — or a good idea for the same reason.

Me? I think the United Nations is the closest thing to a competent international authority that we've got at the moment. We'll have to make do with what we've got.

Earth, Humans, and Using our Brains

(From ESA, via NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Earth, seen from the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. (November 12, 2009))
"...Our problems have been exacerbated by the current economic obsession that measures human progress solely in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, a practice that could be justified only if natural capital were of infinite size...."
("Climate Change and the Common Good," The Pontifical Academy of Sciences (April 29, 2015))
I gather that The Pontifical Academy of Sciences thinks there's more to life than a nation's GDP. I agree — particularly if, as they assume, national leaders decide that boosting this year's GDP is more important than ensuring that future generations will have the resources they need.

I also agree that "natural capital" isn't infinite. There's only so much Earth to go around.

However, I do not think that we've reached — or surpassed — Earth's 'carrying capacity' for humanity.

We would be in trouble, if we hadn't learned anything in the last 2,000,000 years.

Right now, we're more than a thousand times over Earth's 'carrying capacity' for humans: assuming that we use no technology at all. Maybe that's a silly scenario. But so, I think, is pretending that we've survived this long during one of Earth's ice ages by not using our brains. (February 21, 2014; October 31, 2011)

Science and technology, studying this universe and using what we learn, is part of being human. It's what we do. Ethics apply, just like every other human activity, but science and tech are tools: not transgressions. (Catechism, 2293-2295)

Hunger and poverty are very real issues: not because we can't grow enough food for everyone. The problem is getting everyone up to speed with efficient, clean, agricultural tech — and replacing corrupt officials. (August 9, 2013)

Going back to 'the good old days' certainly isn't the answer. Not unless someone figures out how to keep London from being buried in manure. (July 9, 2011)


2. "Carbon Dioxide Crisis?"

I'm not sure why stuff written by professors and old-school journalists is generally marinated in prepositional phrases, and that's yet another topic.

On the 'up' side, Victor Leshyk's illustration for this item is very cool. My opinion.
"Oxygen-depleted toxic oceans had key role in mass extinction over 200 million years ago"
University of Southampton, (April 1, 2015)

"Changes in the biochemical balance of the ocean were a crucial factor in the end-Triassic mass extinction, during which half of all plant, animal and marine life on Earth perished, according to new research involving the University of Southampton.

"The study, published in the upcoming edition of Geology, reveals that a condition called 'marine photic zone euxinia' took place in the Panathalassic Ocean- the larger of the two oceans surrounding the supercontinent of Pangaea.

"Photic zone euxinia occurs when the sun-lit surface waters of the ocean become devoid of oxygen and are poisoned by hydrogen sulphide - a by-product of microorganisms that live without oxygen that is extremely toxic to most other lifeforms.

"The international team of researchers studied fossilised organic molecules extracted from sedimentary rocks that originally accumulated on the bottom of the north-eastern Panthalassic Ocean, but are now exposed on the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada...."
The article is a University of Southampton press release, giving one team's opinion about what caused the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event.

It ends with a reference to current political wrangling:
"...Professor Whiteside comments: 'The release of CO2 was probably at least as rapid as that caused by the burning of fossil fuels today, although the initial concentrations were much higher in the Triassic. The consequences of rapidly rising CO2 in ancient times inform us of the possible consequences of our own carbon dioxide crisis.' "
(University of Southampton,
I don't know if we really do have a "carbon dioxide crisis." Rising levels of carbon dioxide, yes. Crisis: far from certain. Professor Whiteside's observation that CO2 was higher to begin with in the Triassic may or may not make it into mainstream news coverage, and that's yet again another topic.

"Climate change," measurable changes in Earth's climate, is real. It's been going on for 4,540,000,000, years, give or take 50,000,000: ever since Earth formed.

A little over 300 years back, Nicolas Steno, a Danish scientist and Catholic bishop, questioned accepted knowledge of the natural world: becoming a founder of today's stratigraphy and geology.

We've learned quite a bit since then: but the last I checked, scientists still aren't sure how oceanic chemistry and currents, Earth's orbital variations, changes in solar output, and other factors, affect our climate.

Looking Back, Remembering Who We Are

(From Blakey, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Late Triassic, about 220,000,000 years ago.)

Something was going horribly wrong with at least parts of Earth's ocean some 201,000,000 years ago. Scientists are still trying to learn what was happening, and how widespread each problem was.
"...The team found molecules derived from photosynthesising brown-pigmented green sulphur bacteria - microorganisms that only exist under severely anoxic conditions - proving severe oxygen depletion and hydrogen sulphide poisoning of the upper ocean at the end of Triassic, 201 million years ago...."
(University of Southampton,
The Southampton researchers also tracked changes in organic matter's nitrogen around that time. Something was going very wrong with marine nutrient cycles when oxygen levels dropped.

Scientists had known something like this had happened in shallow waters. This is the first time it's been found in the late-Triassic open ocean.

Scientists have several theories about what happened at the end of the Triassic. One is that gradual climate change finally triggering one of Earth's major extinction events. Or maybe it was an asteroid or comet impact.

Whatever caused it, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event was one of the big ones. (April 24, 2015)

My guess is that scientists who think the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) was involved are on the right track. (May 23, 2014)

About 201,000,000 years back, what's now eastern North America, western Africa, and South America, were connected. Then Earth's continent started splitting apart. The CAMP was, for a time, a lake of magma — the result volcanic eruptions coming in four pulses over about 600,000 years.

It's a bit hard to imagine that volcanic activity on that scale wouldn't have an effect on critters: but it's a puzzle that scientists are still working on.

Whatever happened, it was abrupt. Over a span of only some 10,000 years — a moment of geologic time — just before Pangaea started breaking apart — about half of Earth's species died off.

On the other hand, about half the species didn't become extinct. All that (comparatively) sudden death left many ecological niches open, giving dinosaurs a chance to flourish.

Mosquitoes and scorpions survived the end-Triassic mass extinction, and every climatic speed bump since. (June 13, 2014; November 29, 2013)

So, I think, will we: as long as we remember that we're human, and use our brains.

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.