Peter Hess's picture

Is Climate Change a Moral Issue?

In the Roman Catholic Church, October 22 is the memorial or feast day of the late Pope John Paul II; indeed, it marks the 35th anniversary of his election to the papacy. He is a very significant intellectual figure among recent pontiffs due to his appreciation of the dialogue between religion and the sciences.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II moved the Church significantly beyond Pope Pius XII’s tentative endorsement in Humani Generis of the theory of evolution.  John Paul II declared in his message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that:

New scientific knowledge has led us to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines.

Even more significant for Catholics than this rather belated papal endorsement of evolution was John Paul’s clear-eyed vision, expressed in his message on the World Day of Peace in 1990, to the effect that the industrial activities of a growing human population pose a serious threat to the entire biosphere:

The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related "greenhouse effect" has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.  (Section 6)

Pope John Paul II framed the problem of environmental degradation as an issue of intergenerational responsibility. Our accelerating ecological crises―climate change being central among them―are moral issues that people from every walk of life must address:

When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.[Section 15]

In the context of this 35th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, it is important for all of us―whether of any religious tradition or of none―to think about our responsibility for the state of the biosphere in which we have evolved. How can I substantially reduce my business travel or my daily commute so as to minimize my carbon footprint? How many children beyond the replacement rate of two can I responsibly bring into a world of more than seven billion humans? How can I reduce my participation in conspicuous and wasteful consumption? These and other considerations are some of the moral implications of Pope John Paul II’s addresses and writings on themes in ecological ethics.