Climate Change, IPCC reports and Pope Francis

Much has been said about climate change in recent times due to the last IPCC’s report, the Fifth Assessment Report. Here are some media articles on ABC and BBC, and a media debate about a meteorologists radical response here. Below is a video about how the information is spun to the general public.

But what does the report actually say? Well, the official summary is here and a briefer version here with headlines (thanks Duarte). A careful analysis by Roger Pielke Jr. however, shows that not that much has changed in this report. Below are Roger’s five conclusions, whcih he expalins in the article here:

1. The core scientific understandings remain unchanged

2. The IPCC itself is still engaged in PR spin and messaging

3. We will not be able to clearly distinguish the influence of that human influence from natural variability for decades:

4. Actions to mitigate climate through reductions in carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) will not have a detectable effect on climate until after mid-century.

5. There is not a strong scientific basis for claiming a discernible effect of human-caused climate change on hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought.

This is a familiar conclusion to readers of this blog, so I won’t belabor it (more to come soon on this). Here is what the IPCC SPM says about each looking out to mid-century:

  • Hurricanes (tropical cyclones):  “Low confidence” in both a “human contribution to observed changes” and “likelihood of future changes”
  • Floods: No comments in the SPM
  • Tornadoes: No comments in the SPM
  • Drought:  “Low confidence” in both a “human contribution to observed changes” and “likelihood of future changes”
The conclusions with respect to hurricanes and drought both represent a walking back from more aggressive conclusions reported in 2007, and should not be a surprise to readers here, as that is what the literature says. Kudos to the IPCC for getting this right.
The last point I reproduced in its entirety because of how the disaster information contrasts with the ABC video on climate change, suggesting a very tight relationship. The apocalyptic alarmism is apparent in the video and many media responses, but not in the actual report. For more detail see Roger’s latest post on disaster events alone and the IPCC 5 report here, and a comment on how to deal with climate change as opposed to more apocalyptic visions:

The IPCC should put to rest silly claims that action on emissions, even very aggressive actions, can have a meaningful effect on short-term weather and climate.Here is a prominent example of such a claim from Al Gore eight days ago:

Three years ago, Congress failed to put a price on carbon and, in doing so, allowed global warming pollution to continue unabated. We have seen the disturbing consequences that the climate crisis has to offer—from a drought that covered 60% of our nation to Superstorm Sandy which wreaked havoc and cost the taxpayers billions, from wildfires spreading across large areas of the American West to severe flooding in cities all across our country—we have seen what happens when we fail to act. 

 Now, what does all this have to do with Pope Francis? Well recently he met with cultural and academic representatives and gave an exegesis of the passage of the disciples of Emmaus in order to provide a diagnosis of the modern attitude to crisis, which falls into apocalyptic visions and catastrophism at large:

The hearts of the two disciples are filled with suffering and bewilderment at the death of Jesus; they are disappointed by how things have ended. We find a similar sentiment in our present situation: disappointment,disillusionment as a result of an economic and financial crisis, but also of an ecological, educational, moral and human crisis. It is a crisis that concerns the present and future of the history and life of man in our western civilization and that ends in affecting the entire world. And when I say crisis, I am not thinking of tragedy. When the Chinese want to write the word crisis, they write it with two characters: the character for danger and the character for opportunity. When we speak of crises, we are speaking of dangers, but also of opportunities. This is the sense in which I am using the word. Of course every age of history contains critical elements, but in the last four centuries, we have never seen the fundamental certainties that make up human life so shaken as in our time. I am thinking of the deterioration of the environment: this is dangerous, let us think ahead a little to the war over water which is to come; to social imbalances; to the terrible power of weapons — we have said so much about this in recent days—; to the economic and financial system which puts money, the god of money, rather than man at the centre rather than man; to the development and the burden of the media, with all of its positive aspects, of communications and of transportation. It is a change that concerns the very way in which humanity keeps its existence in the world going.

2. What are the reactions in the face of this reality? Let us return to the two disciples of Emmaus: disappointed at Jesus’ death, they show resignation and try to flee from reality, they leave Jerusalem. We can read these same attitudes at this time in history too. In the face of this crisis, there can be resignation, pessimism about the possibility of taking any effective action. In a certain sense it is “calling us out” of the same dynamic as the present historical turning point, by denouncing its more negative aspects with a mindset similar to that spiritual and theological movement of the second century A.D. that was called “apocalyptic”. We are tempted to think in apocalyptic terms. This pessimistic understanding of human freedom and of the process of history leads to a kind of paralysis of mind and will. Disillusionment also leads to a kind of escapism, to looking for “islands” or a reprieve. It is something like Pilate’s attitude of “washing his hands”. It is an attitude which appears to be “pragmatic”, but which in fact ignores the cry for justice, humanity and social responsibility and leads to individualism and hypocrisy, if not to a sort of cynicism. This is the temptation we are faced with, if we go down the road of disenchantment and disappointment.

At this point we wonder: is there a way forward in our present situation? Should we resign ourselves to it? Should we allow our hope to be dimmed? Should we flee from reality? Should we “wash our hands of it” and withdraw into ourselves? I not only think that there is a way forward, but also that the very moment in history which we are living urges us to seek and find paths of hope that open our society to new horizons. And this is where the role of the university is so very valuable. The university as a place for the development and transmission of knowledge, for the formation in “wisdom” in the deepest sense of the word, for the integral education of the human person. In this regard, I would like to offer several brief points of reflection.

a. The university as a place of discernment. It is important to interpret reality by looking it in the face. Ideological or partial interpretations are useless; they only feed illusion and disillusionment. It is important to interpret reality, but also to live this reality without fear, without fleeing, without catastrophism…

I think this theologic-sociological interpretation of our current condition can explain much of the draw within the climate debate towards an apocalyptic interpretation. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much with the climate, but the lowly and desperate gaze of human beings who have lost their transcendent horizon and are dormant towards the divine. WIth eyes opened to what is truly important, incorrect interpretations would perhaps subside. To the young people of Sardinia, the Pope gave them a message about what they should do facing the world’s crisis:

And journey on in this life with Jesus: the saints did it.They are ordinary people who instead of complaining “let down their nets for a catch”. Imitate their example, entrust yourselves to their intercession and always be men and women of hope! No complaining! No discouragement! Never be depressed, never go to purchase comfort from death: none of it! Go forward with Jesus! He never fails, he never disappoints, he is loyal!

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