Global Warming and the Pope

In his 2008 World Day of Peace address, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that human beings “are of supreme worth vis-à-vis creation as a whole.” He explained that respecting the environment does not mean considering “material or animal nature more important than man.”
According to some early accounts, this amounted to a “surprise attack” on the theory that man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are creating global warming. The London Daily Mail reported: “The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.”
The pope’s address is readily available on the Vatican’s Web page, but one wonders whether those who wrote these early news stories ever read Benedict’s words. The statement does not expressly mention global warming (or climate change, as it is being more frequently called, since temperatures stopped increasing several years ago). It is as you would expect: Benedict explains that we must not selfishly consider nature “to be at the complete disposal of our own interests,” and we must preserve the earth for future generations.
The pope did say that we need to commit “our finest intellectual energies” to the moral and just resolution of environmental concerns and “not let ourselves be discouraged by mistakes and misunderstandings” of the past. That, of course, is eminently reasonable. We have to look at the evidence and be willing to question prevailing assumptions. Unfortunately, many who support the man-made carbon emissions theory of global warming seem not to want their evidence tested.
In early March, a large number of scientists, meteorologists, and others gathered in New York City for a three-day summit on global warming. This conference, sponsored by theHeartland Institute, featured around 100 speakers — all of them with questions about the manmade global warming theory. I was one of the speakers.
Back in 1990, I wrote a couple of articles about global warming. At that time, I took the theory as an accepted fact, and my papers focused on ownership of coastal properties after the tides rose due to rising temperatures. It was a fairly pedestrian legal issue for a new law professor to explore.
For the next 15 or so years, I taught a course in environmental law, so I continued to study the subject. Then, last year, I was asked to evaluate Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, in which he trumpeted the CO2 theory and dismissed all objections to it. I should note that I’m not a scientist; like Gore, I attended law school at Vanderbilt University — though unlike the former vice president, I managed to graduate.
Preparing for the talk, I surveyed the literature, watched the movie, and searched the Internet. I quickly saw that the arresting images so often used to convince the public that global warming is a man-made phenomenon are very deceptive. I eventually wrote a paper on the subject, though my point here is not to rehash that article, but rather to describe the conference in New York.

There weren’t a lot of celebrities at the conference. John Stossell, of 20/20 fame, was one keynote speaker, as was Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic. Other than that, however, the participants were for the most part serious scientists with findings that contradict the new orthodoxy of the CO2 theory.
Of course, Gore has accused these global warming “deniers” of being pawns of big business. I met these people. I don’t believe they were bought off by “Big Oil” or “Big Business.” Most of them had serious research that they were happy to submit to scrutiny. Some complained about being shut out of the normal outlets due to the money and influence behind the groups that support Gore. Others said that there was pressure within their academic departments to pursue the grants that support CO2 theory.
In the global warming debate, each side claims that there is corruption on the other side. Each accuses the other of being supported by large financial interests. Advocates on one side — most notably Gore — have tried to silence the opposition by claiming that the debate is over, and by discrediting anyone who disagrees.
Political issues can be resolved through debate, but the same should not apply to science. Scientific knowledge is advanced by encouraging critical review of prevailing theories; those theories only gain currency when they can withstand challenges from the scientific community at large.
With global warming, however, scientists are urged not to look beyond the prevailing theory. A “consensus” has been reached, so why look further? (Of course, the very idea of consensus seems incongruent with science.) That’s why the New York conference was so important: It showed that there were lots of people with serious questions about the CO2 theory.
Last year, the Vatican hosted a conference on global warming. A small percentage of the time was allocated to those who have doubts about the CO2 theory. To listen to the complaints from global warming activists, however, one might have thought that the conference was stacked against them. It wasn’t. It’s simply that the pope believes we need to carefully review all the evidence.
Sounds fair, doesn’t it?

  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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