Laudato Si on the Science of Global Warming: Loud and Clear and Mistaken

By William M Briggs Published on June 18, 2015

In a recent meeting Pope Francis held with priests in Rome’s Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Holy Father said that churchmen who have disputes with their superiors should confront their superiors “like men.”

“There are quarrels and arguments in the Church?” he said. “Well, it makes good news! This is so since the beginning. A church without quarrels is a dead church. Do you know where there aren’t any quarrels? In cemeteries!” The Pope welcomed arguments as a tool to bring out the truth.

In his new and much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis also says that he is “concerned to encourage an open and honest debate” and affirms that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions” (188). So, in the spirit of debate that Pope Francis has called for, I, as a Catholic and published climatological scientist would argue Laudato is mistaken on many of the scientific claims made involving the climate.

Pope Francis says many important things in this letter. But the media will likely ignore most of it and focus on the strong endorsement of the idea of dangerous man-caused global warming.

For instance, the document says, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events. …” But this is not correct.

We are not witnessing a “disturbing warming” of the climatic system. Satellite and balloon measurements show that global temperatures have been, on averageflat for almost twenty years.

Increase in sea levels have not been dangerous or noteworthy. And extreme weather events, if we look at the evidence, are actually on the decrease.

Yes, there are environmental problems, but the climate is not growing worse. Anyone with an Internet connection can discover this for himself. So why do some in the Church believe the opposite?

The reason is found not in any perennial Church teaching but in this quote from Laudato Si: “Scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”

“Scientific studies.” Just so. Scientific studies gave us a theory. It’s that theory that says temperatures have risen when they haven’t. It’s theory that insists storms have become more frequent and stronger when the opposite is so. It’s theory that drives a sense of urgency that something has to be done before it’s too late, with proposed solutions that would do nothing to cool the climate but could have dire consequences for the poor and vulnerable.

The theory behind so many scientific studies of climate is that increases in carbon dioxide, a minor constituent of the atmosphere, will, through complex and implausible mechanisms, drive temperatures ever higher, and that this increasing temperature will wreak havoc on every nice thing — polar bears, crops, bees, coral reefs — but will cause to flourish every evil thing — abortion, crime, sharks, mosquitoes.

This global warming theory relies on a satanic gas, carbon dioxide. This gas is a byproduct of our very breathing and our use of fossil fuel, one of the greatest contributors to human life and flourishing. The theory, however, treats fossil fuel as an evil that must be restricted and eventually abandoned.

As Laudato Si puts it in paragraph 165:

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. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.

We do not know this. It is an assumption of the theory. Models that rely on this theory have been built and for decades have been making predictions of ever increasing, even dangerously increasing, temperatures. But reality has not cooperated. Temperatures have remained relatively steady. The models have not only been wrong, but have been growing worse, and for twenty-some years. It is thus reasonable to suppose that the discrepancy between theory and reality will widen. There’s nothing wrong with having a theory. It is an old-fashioned scientific truism, however, that when a theory makes false predictions, it must be wrong.

Yet some hold strongly to the theory, reality be damned. Alas, in preparing his encyclical, Pope Francis received counsel and advice from some of the most extreme and misanthropic proponents of the theory. Those who could have provided counterbalance were locked out of the process and demonized as “deniers” on the payroll of oil companies.

To such alarmists, it is axiomatic that mankind must be an environmental menace, therefore it follows that the theory reveals the truth about the climate. What about the discrepancy between observed reality and theory? Well, it’s reality that must be in error — or rather, it’s reality that must be ignored.

Why? Easy: True Believers believe that someday, we know not when, reality will coincide with the predictions of doom (see this video beginning at 17 min). It must!  This is what the theory demands. This is why something has to be done, and soon: to forestall the bleak times that await us. “If present trends continue,” Pope Francis says in Laudato Si, “this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

It is true that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God” (as Laudato Si quotes John Chryssavgis). And it is also true that many such sins exist. Air pollution in some cities has made the air downright nasty, and has produced intolerable conditions, especially for the poor in the developing world.

But it does not follow that because some sin exists, everything mankind does in the environment is a sin or is harmful. Nor does it follow that all harm is necessarily the result of sin. To live, man must use the environment, thus decisions have to be made.

Let’s grant, however, that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere creates some warming. What’s better? To release slightly more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by providing cheap, reliable fossil fuels to the more than one billion people who do not have electricity, and who because they do not have it, as Laudato Si says, “take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating”? Or to withhold these necessary fuels because the carbon dioxide might, at some unspecified point in the future, cause the global average temperature to increase a few tenths of a degree, even though, at the moment, there is no evidence this will happen?

The answer to that dilemma should be obvious.

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