Dr. Lawrence Tanner, director of the Center for the Study of Environmental Change, on papal encyclical

With the release of Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical on creation, “Laudato Si,” the Sun asked several experts for their thoughts on the document. Here, Dr. Lawrence Tanner — professor of Environmental Science Systems and director of the Center for the Study of Environmental Change at Le Moyne College — offers his take.

 

“From the outset, Pope Francis seems aware that he will likely ruffle a few feathers and uses the introduction to establish the papal precedent for speaking out on behalf of environmental issues. In our country, it was interesting, but not unexpected, to see conservatives attacking the encyclical long before its release. This attack was based on the perception that the contents of the encyclical would focus largely on climate change, but this was not the case. In fact, only Chapter One (of six) is a specific presentation of the scientific information (although he refers back to it in subsequent chapters), and in that chapter, only one section is devoted specifically to the causes and effects of climate change. Significantly more space is devoted to other environmental threats, such as the threat to biodiversity. The critics erred greatly in their assumption that Francis is meddling in matters beyond his understanding. Having trained and worked as a chemist earlier in his life, the Pope has an appreciation and intellectual command of the sciences that far surpasses that of most of his critics.

“The document is immensely satisfying for scientists and all persons of faith with an interest in the environment. Hence, I find it particularly thrilling to have the support of the Holy Father for my own area of teaching and research (and don’t think my students won’t hear about it). It is a carefully crafted explanation of the damage that human activity has caused – on land, in the oceans and in the atmosphere – and the consequences of this damage to human society, particularly the poor. It is about so much more than the climatic consequences of burning fossil fuels; it is a surprisingly comprehensive summary of the environmental costs of deforestation, the heavy reliance of agriculture on chemicals, mining, overfishing, water pollution, and more. Most of the purely scientific content is contained in Chapter One (so naturally, I was drawn to this chapter). Without going into great detail, the Pope presents a clearly articulated synthesis of the state-of-our-understanding in the pertinent sciences. He is quite accurate in his statement that what he is presenting is indeed the consensus view among scientists. There is no hyperbole, no alarmism. If anything, he is somewhat cautious to avoid overstatement of the case.

“The following chapters lead the readers to understand why they should care, from both purely theological and human standpoints. The Pope explains how we got into this mess, human greed, certainly, but abetted by the unconstrained application of technology. But he then explains how technology can help us get out of it. Perhaps my biggest surprise was Chapter Four, which describes the importance of the awareness of integral ecology, a relatively recent and still-developing academic field that combines the traditional study of natural ecological systems with such disparate disciplines as economics, ethics and philosophy (I really just became aware of this area myself earlier this year at a sustainability conference in India). The Holy Father then makes a very passionate call for constructive dialog between nations, clearly aimed at the participants in the Paris climate summit later this year.”

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