COMMENTARY

Climate change or global warming?

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With nature stirring in the warmer weather of longer days, we may not want to remember that this past winter we shoveled and plowed more snow than we had in years.

We used more ice-melt than we’d budgeted for, more heating fuel than we’d planned to, and excavated our automobiles far too many frigid mornings when already late for work. Yet in the midst of the winter of 2009 came growing concern about “global warming.”

Many find this amusing. When attending Mass one very snowy morning in January at a parish closer than my own, the pastor quipped to the dozen or so present that the mini blizzard raging outside didn’t quite mesh with what he’d read about “global warming.” Soon after a local talk-show host complained that the term “global warming” was being replaced with the term “climate change,” as if this was a deceit.

In fact, “climate change” has typically been the preferred term among scientists who study long-term trends in our atmosphere. The rest of us, busy as we are de-icing windshields, pay little attention to such nuances. But the theories regarding increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” are, and have always been, more complex than a simple prediction that Earth is uniformly getting warmer.

Rather, such theories focus on how alterations in atmospheric composition caused by human activity changes the way our planet distributes thermal energy and moisture. Seasons in some regions may trend more extreme—hotter or colder—or milder. Arid regions may see more moisture. Moist regions may see less. We’re shuffling the cards and will see the results before long—or have we begun noticing them now?

Of course such research is complicated by fallen human limitations: Modeling of atmospheric dynamics sometimes hits the target, sometimes not; an individual scientist might have ideologies that cloud their reasoning; and yes, many messengers of climate change (such as President Barack Obama) also support the evils of abortion and embryonic stem-cell research; their stated concern for life is unconvincing at best. All this turns the science of climate change into a political lightning rod, as any reader of the Drudge Report—a politically conservative, astute, often amusing news Web site — can attest.

Sadly, in what passes for dialogue these days is too often anti-scientific rhetoric. Because we had a cold, snowy winter and Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow every PhD claiming evidence of a changing climate (or the potential consequences thereof) is suspect.

Catholics making claims about the actuality or falsity of climate change would do well to remember that ours is a faith that embraces reason. We allow reason to challenge us, and, using reason, we challenge back. We are certain that with God’s grace honest dialogue will lead to truth.

As the Church’s Catechism puts it, science “provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws” is not our enemy. Moreover, the strong possibility that the science of climate change is correct implies a moral response — a Catholic response—to assess how all this may impact our neighbors, in our own nation and those far off.

Whether or not we as individual Catholics are qualified to argue the nuances of biogeochemical cycles, climate feedback or thermohaline circulation, we must all remember the term charity. What sets Catholic ecological thought apart from scientific sterility is that at the center of our discussions are real people, created in God’s image, who possess souls.

And so as we enter the fullness of the Easter Season, we would do well to note that in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI said that “it is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love." In part, what the Holy Father means is that when we enter worldly issues, such as the physical sciences, Catholics must demonstrate an unchanging climate of selfless, profound and charitable love of neighbor. Whether or not we like our conversation partners, their politics or what they have to tell us must never distract us from employing faith, together with reason, to find our way, in love, to truth.

William Patenaude is an engineer specializing in environmental regulation and a graduate student of theology at Providence College. He is a parishioner of SS. Rose and Clement Church in Warwick.