The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Climate Change and Catholics

I’m planning to do a series on how different religious organizations are responding to climate change. Because the Pope is about to issue a major statement on the subject, I’m starting with Catholicism.

In the United States, at least, climate sanity has become a solidly liberal issue; Democrats occasionally run on an emissions-reduction platform, but Republicans often run against even acknowledging the existence of climate change, while simultaneously espousing culturally conservative views, such as opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. There is no obvious reason why climate denial should have become allied with traditional gender roles, but that is how the historical chips have fallen. Because the Catholic Church is also culturally conservative on key points, someone who didn’t know better might assume that Church doctrine includes climate denial.

That someone would be wrong.

Catholic teaching on the subject of climate change goes back to January 1st, 1990, when Pope John Paul II delivered an address that framed environmental problems as an important threat to world peace. Although he did not use the words global warming or climate change, he specifically cited fossil fuels and unrestricted deforestation among factors harming the “atmosphere and the environment,” and went on to say “the resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”

That’s pretty unambiguous, and the Pope’s address even came out before the First Assessment Report by the IPCCC.

The Pope’s address precipitated other statements by Church officials, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in support of climate sanity and environmental action. Pope Benedict the XVI continued the tradition by speaking and writing on climate change extensively and by urging climate conference delegates to make progress in Rio in 2011.

The Church is not an anti-science body, its famously bad treatment of Galileo notwithstanding (the Church has since apologized for that, and hostilities could never have been as serious as one might suppose–Galileo’s older daughter, a nun, seems to have felt no conflict between her religion and her admiration of her father). The Vatican actually sponsors unfettered scientific inquiry, and the current Pope has made clear that there is no contradiction between Church teachings and foundational scientific theories, such as the big bang theory.

Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic Church has a deep and persistent commitment to the world’s poor. Pope Francis has now explicitly described climate change as a moral issue because of its impact on poor and otherwise disadvantaged humans. And he has given his considerable moral and political weight towards the success of the climate negotiations in Paris later this year.

American Catholics generally agree with the Pope about climate change and appreciate his leadership on the subject, according to polls. Individual churches are already getting involved in a variety of ways. A body called the Catholic Climate Covenant is working to educate Catholics on the subject and to get them involved. The pro-climate stance is not universal among Catholics–Rick Santorum is both a Catholic and a vocal climate denier, for example–but for better or worse, the Church is not a democracy. To a much greater degree than the other religions familiar to Americans, Catholic Christianity is proscriptive rather than descriptive; Catholic beliefs are what the Pope says they are, even if there are individual Catholics who believe something else. From what I have read about the Church and the current Pope, I do not think that belief in climate change itself has become a Catholic precept. Church leadership generally differentiates between matters of science and matters of religion, and they are probably aware that climate science is not a matter of belief anyway. Rather, the church acknowledges that disbelief in climate change (and the Big Bang, and evolution by natural selection) are not precepts of the Church. In any case, the meat of Catholic teaching on climate change is not that it is real but that it is a moral issue.

One hopes that, on this subject at least, the Church proves an able and powerful teacher.

Science and religion have long been estranged, with large pockets of suspicion on both sides. It is not difficult to find people who believe–incorrectly–that one cannot be both a Christian and a scientist (whether the same perception exists for other religions I do not know), and that scientific ideas and religious ideas are mutually exclusive. While there are, indeed, Christian denominations that do define themselves in these terms, and while there are a few vociferously atheistic scientists (notably Richard Dawkins), as a general rule, science and religion are not actually in conflict.

Religion and science do not conflict with each other because they do not operate in the same plane–they are different sides of a coin, different hands of a person, whatever metaphor you like. The job of science is to answer what? and the job of religion is to answer why? Functioning societies need some way to answer both types of question and neither question can stand in for the other. For example, if you don’t know whether a dog can suffer, then all the moral philosophizing in the world will not tell you whether it is ok to kick dogs. On the other hand, if you discover that dogs can suffer and you go ahead and kick them anyway, science can’t tell you to stop–although a scientist might, because scientists, being human, can think about morality as well. Religion is, among other things, a social structure for moral reasoning and instruction.

Science has informed us that human-caused climate change is real and that it hurts poor and persecuted people disproportionately. Pope Francis has joined his predecessors and colleagues in asserting that humans therefor have a moral obligation to stop changing the climate and to help the disadvantaged adapt to the change we have already committed ourselves to.

There are 75 million Catholics in the United States listening to him, and 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.



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New Year, New Habit

Every year around this time, TV and radio shows about how to change one’s habits get popular. I’m hereby jumping on the bandwagon.

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, especially not with respect to the climate. They are too often focused on self-improvement projects, an attempt to make ourselves feel better by escaping guilt or shame–quit smoking, lose ten pounds, whatever we feel bad about. Climate change is not about feeling bad. The sky doesn’t care whether we are good people. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted by our feelings. But doing something about climate change means making lifestyle changes and getting involved politically–in other words, changing habits. So, any advice that works for making New Year’s resolutions stick should help here as well.

I’m working off of two interviews from previous years with the author of Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them, Charles Duhigg, one on Talk of the Nation, the other on Fresh Air. My intention is not particularly to endorse this book, though it does sound good, but rather to endorse the approach that the author claims to have used; first research how humans establish habits and then use that information to develop ways to establish better habits. The more common method, as far as I can tell, is for a self-styled expert to develop a technique that makes intuitive sense based on his or her preconceived ideas. Some of these techniques work, at least for some people, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss.

Mr. Duhigg says that habits are essentially automatic behaviors–the brain saves energy by putting some tasks on autopilot. This is why it’s possible to drive to work and not remember anything about the trip and why it’s possible to watch oneself eat an entire package of cookies without actually wanting to eat any of them–habitual behaviors, like getting ready for work or pulling cookies out of a box while watching TV, are not directed by the part of the brain that makes conscious decisions. Habits automatically engage whenever triggered by a pre-arranged trigger, like the morning alarm-clock. The more times a habit is repeated, the stronger the neurological connections that make it grow, and the more fully automatic the behavior becomes.

Forming habits is not bad–our conscious decision power has better things to do than ponder every possible decision point in our day over and over again (when you brush your teeth, which tooth do you start with? Which shoe do you put on first? Do you put the cereal or the milk in the bowl first?). The objective isn’t to do away with habits but to make sure that the habitual behaviors are actually things you want to do.

Mr. Duhigg’s advice for forming new habits centers around avoiding the triggers for the old habits and creating triggers for new habits. I’ve done this–my trigger for exercising first thing in the morning is an alarm that goes off at six in the morning. If I sleep in, however, that triggers my old morning habit instead, one that doesn’t involve exercise. There is no magic time-frame for forming a new habit (any that you may hear, like 21 days, is made-up), but the longer you pair a behavior sequence with a trigger, the stronger the association will be in your brain.

In my experience, it is important to treat good habits as a thing one has to keep, not a thing that keeps itself. It’s like tending a small fire that might go out if not fed–the new habit has some momentum, so over time it begins to get easier to do, but you still have to work on it.  Think in terms of protecting the new-born habit by pairing the new activity with its trigger every single time. Do not try to break the old habit by an act of will–that won’t work, because habits are what we do when the will turns off. Instead, apply the will towards building the new habit.

Places where building new habits might be relevant to climate change:

  • Turning off unneeded lights
  • Planning car trips so as to minimize gas use
  • Planning meals so as to eat locally, seasonally, and largely vegetarian
  • Turning off the water heater and other household heating and cooling units before overnight trips
  • Doing laundry three days before you need the clothes so as to be able to line-dry
  • Reading about climate issues regularly
  • Writing letters to Congress-people regularly.

Of course, different people’s circumstances generate different lists–if you can’t afford a car, for example, then minimizing gas use might not be an issue….

But the point is that if you’re looking at changing your behavior, a good place to start is to learn about how human behavior works–how habits work and how decisions work. I’ve often noticed that many self-described environmentalists simply neglect seemingly obvious steps. For example, I was at an event this morning where the organizers provided refreshments complete with disposable Styrofoam cups. Why not recyclable paper cups? Why not encourage participants to bring their own? Maybe the foam cups are just an unexamined habit?

I started this discussion with a single book–but there are others. It’s that time of year, so you should have no trouble finding additional advice.

To whatever you might find, I add a piece from my own experience;

What you plan to change your behavior, plan what to do if you do the old behavior instead. For example, if you want to switch to re-usable shopping bags, establish a trigger for your new habit of grabbing the bags on your way out–but also plan what you are going to do if you do not grab your bags. What I do is awkwardly carry my groceries out in my hands, with no bags at all. Do that a few times and you will stop forgetting!

Some people agree to pay friends money if they slip up or otherwise establish some concrete motivator.

But do whatever works for you.