Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Pope Weighs In: Climate Change, The Himalayas, And Everything

The Vatican, more particularly the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has issued a new report on global warming entitled Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene: A Report by the Working Group Commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Science.  It strikes me as rather well done. Not so much for the original scientific content--what's happening to the world's glaciers under AGW has been pretty thoroughly documented.  However, as a vehicle designed to communicate that knowledge, and to promote an action plan based on that knowledge, it is exemplary, and should be read  by anyone who has spent time engaging in the often tedious back and forth re "How should scientists speak to the public about Climate Change?".  Well, here's how.  Look and learn.

From the introduction:

We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life.

I encourage people to read the whole thing. A couple of particularly good things about it.

1) It seems to me that the focus on mountain glaciers is a brilliant move, rhetorically.  The Alps wind their way across much of Europe; runoff from the rapidly shrinking Himalayan glaciers supply water to significant parts of Asia; North and South American glaciers are also in retreat.  And everywhere their decline is likely to bring deleterious consequences. If you are issuing a call for global collective action, and that's what the Pontifical Academy's report appears to be doing, then you want to find an effect of AGW that is truly global in nature.  For example, Tornados, Pine Beetle infestations (assuming the Vatican even has expertise in these areas) have effects too regionalized to serve the report's symbolic requirements.  Glaciers work wonderfully.  I do not think the specific subject matter of the document, upon which it hangs its more general conclusions and recommendations, was chosen randomly.

2) The report contains beautifully written scientific prose (or at least has been translated into such).  Francis Bacon, who invented the style, would have nodded in approval.  The writing is austere, authoritative, and yet not terribly difficult to parse.  In other words, if you've got half a brain in your head, you can understand it.  This bit outlines states quite elegantly the breakdown in responsibility for the AGW  problem as it applies to developed vs. developing countries:

By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life.

If you want to call the Pope a socialist bent on transferring first world wealth to the third world, go ahead, but you will seem diminished in the face of such fine writing.

3)  One interesting feature of the report is the employment of the phrase  "The Anthropocene Age", which is

...a recent and informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems.

Some have argued that this is a misappropriation of the vocabulary of "ages" for what is in geological terms a short-term event.  But I am more interested in the fact that the report is not afraid of this kind of openly rhetorical flourish (as noted in the wiki article above, the term is not a formal part of the geological vocabulary).  In fact, I would argue that it stomps royally all over the  framework of roles and poses, designed to separate explanations of science from science advocacy, laid out by  Roger Pielke Jr. in his Honest Broker.  Which suggests to me that such anatomies of good vs. bad scientific discourse are pointless abstractions that are simply not relevant to any actual debate at the interface of climate science and climate policy.  In other words: feel free to ignore Roger Pielke Jr.  The Pope does.


Fred said...

Perfect. One religion pimping for another religion.

Gotta love when the Catholic Church embraces a pagan religion like Environmentalism.

Better tell Gaia to lock up her little boys . . . the Pope & his Priests are coming for their ass ends.

Captain Pithart said...

Hi Fred,

would you care to give me your last name?

thanks :)

If you're religious yourself, i would also be interested in which religion is for you. Or are you an atheist?

Peter Hartmann

Tof KW said...

Leave it to asshat Fred to actually insult the Holy Roman Catholic church, largest Christian church on the planet with over 1.2 billion followers ...myself being one of them.

byron smith said...

Looks like a great report and thanks for pointing it out.

A small comment on #1: As an Australian, I can fairly confidently say that mountain glaciers, while a very important and alarming field of study (with great visual impact as well as genuinely concerning outcomes approaching down the track) is not truly global. Australia has no glaciers, yet is one of the developed nations likely to be most affected by changing climate.

Nonetheless, I hope the (denier) Archbishop of Sydney pays attention to this report.

Steve Bloom said...

Doesn't the glacial pace of the Ozian response to climate change count for anything, Byron? :)

BCL, if you're going to mention RP Jr. at all, please remind people to not buy his book. TIA.