Climate Change Blogs

Germany Breaks its All-Time Heat Record

Published: Julio 6, 2015
Germany broke its all-time heat record on Sunday July 5, when the mercury soared to 104.5°F (40.3°C) at the official Kitzingen station in Bavaria. According to the German weather service's Facebook page, the record is now confirmed as official. The previous official national heat record recognized by the German meteorological agency (DWD) was 104.4°F (40.2°C), set in July 1983 and matched in August 2003. Numerous cities in Germany set all-time heat records over the weekend, including Saturday's 100.2°F (37.9°C ) reading at Berlin's Dahlem station, which has a very long period of record going back to 1876. Frankfurt beat its all-time heat record on Sunday--both at the airport (38.8°C) and downtown (39.0°C). Thanks go to weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera and Klimahaus' Michael Theusner for these stats.


Figure 1. A young boy jumps from a 7.5 meter platform at a crowded outdoor pool during a record heat wave in Frankfurt, Germany, Friday, July 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

More near-record heat on the way
Germany has joined four other nations that have set all-time July national heat records this month: the Netherlands, the U.K., Thailand, and Colombia. Intense heat will continue over portions of Europe the next three days, with more national July heat records at risk. The fiercest heat will be over Poland on Monday, over Germany, Switzerland, and Austria on Tuesday, then shift to Southeast Europe on Wednesday. High temperatures close to the highest values ever measured can be expected in all these locations. For reference:

Poland's all-time hottest temperature is 104.4°F (40.2°C), measured on July 29, 1921 at Proszkow.

Switzerland's all-time hottest temperature is 106.7°F (41.5°C), measured on August 11, 2003 at Grono.

Austria's all-time hottest temperature is 104.9°F (40.5°C), measured on August 8, 2013 at Bad Deutsch-Altenburg.

Liechtenstein's all-time hottest temperature is 99.3°F (37.4°C), measured on August 13, 2003 at Ruggel.

Andorra's all-time hottest temperature is 101.3°F (38.5°C), measured on July 16, 2005 at Andorra La Vella.

Climate Change Playing a Significant Role in 2015 European Heat Wave
According to a press release by Climate Central, an international team of scientists from Oxford University, KNMI, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, along with regional partners from CNRS and MeteoSwiss says it is virtually certain that climate change increased the likelihood of the ongoing heat wave stretching across much of Europe. The risk increased by a factor of two or more over a large part of Europe, and up to more than a factor of four in some of the hottest cities. For example, the 3-day heat wave over the past three days in Mannheim, Germany would have been a 1-in-100 year event around the year 1900. It is now likely to happen roughly 1 in 15 years, thanks to climate change. The results are a part of the developing field of “weather attribution” that uses observational weather and climate data, weather forecasts and climate models.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Heat Climate Change

Pakistan's Deadliest Heat Wave on Record Kills at Least 800

Published: Junio 24, 2015
The death toll from a brutal heat wave in Pakistan rose to 830 on Wednesday, making it Pakistan's deadliest heat wave in recorded history. Most of these deaths--at least 770--occurred in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. According to statistics from EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, Pakistan's previous deadliest heat wave was in 1991, when 523 people died.

Death Tolls from the 5 Deadliest Heat Waves in Pakistan's History
1) 2015: 830+
2) 1991: 523
3) 2014: 248
4) 2003: 200
5) 1953: 111


Figure 1. Pakistanis receive ice outside a hospital during heatwave in Karachi on June 24, 2015. A state of emergency was declared in hospitals. Image credit : RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images.


Figure 2. Temperatures in Karachi, Pakistan from June 11 - June 24, 2015 show that the heat wave peaked on June 20, with a high temperature of 112.6°F (44.8°C.) The heat index was as high as 121°F.

The worst of the heat is over for Pakistan
The past week saw an unusually long string of very hot days with temperatures that did not cool off at night in Pakistan. The heat wave peaked on Saturday June 20, when the high temperature hit 112.6°F (44.8°C) in Karachi; the heat index peaked at a dangerously high 121°F. According to the Pakistan Meteorology Department, Karachi's all-time high temperature was 118°F (47.8°C) on May 9, 1938. A tropical depression associated with the approaching southwest monsoon pushed ashore along the border of Pakistan and India on Tuesday, bringing thunderstorms and cooler weather. Wednesday's high reached only 98°F in Karachi, breaking a streak of six consecutive days when the temperature hit 103°F or higher. The previous longest streak of 103°F+ temperatures during the past fifteen years was three consecutive days, which occurred most recently in 2006. Temperatures failed to dip below 85°F at night during the streak of 103°F days over the past week; very warm nights are associated with high mortality during intense heat waves, since there is no chance for the body to gain an overnight respite. High temperatures are expected to rise to 103°F again in Karachi on Thursday, but then cool to the upper 90s over the weekend--about ten degrees Fahrenheit cooler than last weekend's temperatures. The cooling rains from the southwest monsoon are likely to arrive in Karachi by mid-July, and the circulation associated with the monsoon should insure that the region will not see any more temperatures this summer as high as were recorded last weekend. If the death toll from the 2015 Pakistan heat wave rises above 1,030, it will join this year's May 2015 heat wave in India as one of the ten deadliest heat waves in world history.


Figure 3. Progress of the monsoon towards Pakistan as of June 23, 2015 (green line) has been about a week slower than its usual pace. Karachi, Pakistan usually sees the monsoon move through during the second week of July. Image credit: India Meteorological Department .

A deficient monsoon predicted, but above-average rains so far
The atmospheric circulation patterns brought on by an El Niño event usually cause much reduced monsoon rains in India. With the current moderate El Niño event is forecast to intensify this summer, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is forecasting only a 7% chance of near-average rains during the 2015 summer monsoon period, and a 93% chance of below average or well below average rains. IMD's best estimate is that 12% less rain than usual will fall. However, during the first half of June, monsoon rainfall was 11% above average for India as a whole.

Climate change and the monsoon
This year's deadly heat waves in India and Pakistan were made much more probable by the fact that Earth is experiencing its hottest temperatures on record--the January - May 2015 period was the planet's hottest such period on record. The planet's record heat contributed to unusually warm ocean temperatures off the coast of Pakistan, which were about 1°C (1.8°F) above average this week. Warmer oceans make hotter heat waves over adjoining land areas more likely. According to the India Meteorological Department, a warming climate increased heat waves in India by a third between 1961 to 2010. As the planet continues to warm due to human-caused global warming, heat waves will become more frequent and more intense, and heat-related deaths will soar unless we take strong measures to adapt. An April 2015 paper published in Regional Environmental Change, Intensification of future severe heat waves in India and their effect on heat stress and mortality, warned that "heat waves are projected to be more intense, have longer durations and occur at a higher frequency and earlier in the year. Southern India, currently not influenced by heat waves, is expected to be severely affected by the end of the twenty-first century." Perhaps a bigger concern for India and Pakistan with climate change is drought, though. Many climate models show that climate change might increase the average rainfall in India and Pakistan from the monsoon, but when dry years occur, the hotter temperatures accompanying the dry years will drive much more intense droughts capable of causing significant challenges to growing food.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Heat Climate Change

A New Take on the Human Factor in Recent Extreme Events

Published: Junio 23, 2015
Much debate in the last few years has centered on persistent kinks in the polar jet stream and the extreme weather they’ve helped produce, such as the record snowfalls in New England last February. Top researchers differ on how much a changing climate might be involved with this jet-stream “weirding.” However, there’s no question that sea levels have risen and global temperatures have warmed. Those unassailable facts may serve as the most direct link between climate change and extreme events, according to the Perspectives article Attribution of climate extreme events, published on Monday in Nature Climate Change. The authors include Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and Theodore Shepherd (University of Reading, England).

Trenberth is a leading expert in the global flows of energy and water around the world. Because warmer temperatures and increased water vapor have influenced the whole of Earth’s atmosphere, Trenberth and colleagues start with the premise that every storm is influenced by climate change to at least some extent. “The environment in which all weather events occur is not what he used to be,” their new paper states. At the same time, they agree that no storm is entirely a result of climate change: “...it is not possible to attribute a single climate extreme event, which by definition is unique and which has a large element of chance in its occurrence, to a specific cause.”


Figure 1. Temperature anomalies for July 2003 in western Europe, as calculated by observations from NASA’s Terra satellite. Image credit: Reto Stockli and Robert Simmon, based upon data provided by the MODIS Land Science Team.


Recognizing this quandary, many researchers who look into climate change and extreme events use models and observations to gauge how much of the risk of a particular extreme can be attributed to a warming planet. A landmark study led by Peter Stott (UK Hadley Centre) found a greater-than-90-percent chance that a European heat wave on par with the 2003 disaster that killed an estimated 70,000 people had become at least twice as likely due to human-produced greenhouse gases. Such studies often call on large-scale circulation, such as the flow at 500 millibars, as a key index of the extreme event. But there is a great deal of natural variability in where upper-level highs and lows set up, so an attribution study focused on circulation might find no evidence that climate change helped create a extreme event, even if there is unprecedented rainfall or heat--the variables that actually cause impact--associated with it. The new paper suggests that a more useful question might be: “Given the weather pattern, how were the temperatures, precipitation and associated impacts influenced by climate change?” The paper goes on to look at four recent events (see below) and how they would look through this lens.

Dáithí Stone, an attribution expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and leader of the Weather Risk Attribution Forecast, sent me this take on the paper: "Recent studies exploring the role of greenhouse gas emissions in extreme weather events tend to be conservative by working under the 'innocent until proven guilty' paradigm, but this paper argues it would also be useful to work under the 'guilty until proven innocent' paradigm, or something in between. This is really the precautionary principle and can certainly make sense for adaptation decisions: even though residents of a coastal city might not have been measuring sea level, they may still think it wise to assume it is rising. But looking at things in the innocent-until-proven-guilty approach can be wise too, as in the Western legal systems designed to prevent witch hunts. So which paradigm is better depends on the purpose."

It remains to be seen which scientists will follow the lead of the new paper and focus more on thermodynamics (heat, moisture) and sea level rise, as opposed to circulation change. Jennifer Francis (Rutgers University) is among those who’ve found evidence for a link between depleted Arctic sea ice and unusual jet-stream behavior. In an email to me, she agreed with the overall conclusion of Trenberth and colleagues: “One should focus on climate changes that are irrefutable--such as rising sea levels, warmer tropospheric temperatures, increased water vapor, warmer SSTs, and changing soil moisture--all on a case-specific basis. Given a particular circulation pattern or weather system, these changes will affect the impacts of that system.” At the same time, she maintains that the question of how cutoff lows, blocking highs, and other jet-stream configurations may be changing is equally important. “Addressing this question requires a different approach that identifies and measures changes in these types of patterns,” said Francis. “For example, knowing whether the frequency of strong ridging in the eastern Pacific will change depending on certain factors--such as Pacific sea-surface temperature (SST) patterns and/or Arctic sea-ice loss--will be tremendously valuable in planning for water resources in western states.” She added: “Changes in dynamics are harder to pin down, but ultimately they have a farther-reaching impact on probabilities of particular extremes.”

Below are summaries of the four events linked by Trenberth and colleagues to thermodynamic and sea-level changes. The full paper can be viewed from a link at this Guardian blog post by John Abraham, thanks to a nature.com content sharing initiative. At Mashable, Andrew Freedman provides additional perspective on the new paper. A matrix created in 2012 for UCAR/NCAR AtmosNews outlines several different ways that scientists have approached the attribution of extreme events to climate change.

Jeff Masters and Bob Henson


Figure 1. Hurricane Sandy at 10:10 am EDT October 28, 2012. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

1) Hurricane Sandy, 2012
Hurricane Sandy, the most powerful and second most destructive Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, barreled into New Jersey on October 29, 2012, bringing hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, heavy snow, and a massive storm surge. Sandy's catastrophic storm surge was responsible for the majority of the storm’s 131 deaths and $62 billion in damage in the United States. While papers have been published arguing that climate change could be expected to make Sandy’s unusual 1-in-700 year track west-northwestwards into new Jersey more or less likely, the authors of Monday’s study argue that the increased sea surface temperatures (SSTs) along its track due to global warming likely led to a bigger, more intense storm, stronger winds, and greater precipitation. Sandy traversed a broad strip of SSTs that were 1 - 1.5 °C warmer than average along the U.S. East Coast, and a 2014 model study using the European model by Magnusson et al., Evaluation of medium-range forecasts for Hurricane Sandy, found that these warmer SSTs decreased Sandy’s central pressure by 7.6 mb, increased the winds by 8 mph (3.6 m/s), and increased the precipitation by 35%. The authors of Monday’s study write, “Moreover, the storm was riding on sea levels that were higher by about 7.5” (19 cm) because of global warming. Although perhaps only one-half to one-third of the SST increase can be blamed on global warming from human activities, it is readily apparent that the storm surge and associated damage was considerably influenced by climate change. It is quite possible that the subways and tunnels might not have flooded without the warming-induced increases in sea level and in storm intensity and size, putting a potential price tag of human climate change on this storm in the tens of billions of dollars.” Indeed, Lloyd’s of London estimated that the amount of sea level rise due to global warming over the past century led to an additional $8 billion in damage from Sandy’s storm surge in New York. Here is another analysis (from UCAR/NCAR AtmosNews) on the factors that went into Sandy’s surge.


Figure 2. Damage to Highway 34 along the Big Thompson River, on the road to Estes Park, Colorado in September, 2013. Image credit: Colorado National Guard.

2) Boulder, Colorado floods, 2013
In September 2013, records rains over the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies fed rampaging floods that killed at least nine people and did $2 billion in damage. An assessment published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society last September concluded concluded that the flood was not made more likely or more intense by climate change, given that models were just as likely to produce heavy September rain when run for the period 1870–1900 as for 1983–2012. However, the authors of the new study write, “Extremely high SSTs off the west coast of Mexico and the associated record atmospheric water vapor amounts that flowed into Colorado as a result were instrumental in the event, and it probably would not have occurred without human-caused warming. Such an increase in atmospheric water vapor becomes concentrated when focused by topography, as it did in Boulder, and further amplified on the ground as water drains into channels and rivers. This suggests an important role for human-caused warming in those Boulder floods.”


Figure 3. There's a car under here somewhere! A Maryland resident digs out after Snowmageddon. Image credit: wunderphotographer chills.

3) Snowmaggedon, 2010
On February 5 - 6, 2010, an incredible snowstorm dubbed “Snowmaggedon” hammered Washington DC and the mid-Atlantic states, burying them under 1 - 3 feet of snow. While the blizzard was not an exceptionally strong storm--the central pressure was a rather unimpressive 986 mb at the height of the blizzard--it was an exceptionally wet storm. The melted equivalent precipitation for the blizzard exceeded three inches along its core snow belt, a phenomenal amount of moisture for a winter storm. The blizzard formed a very unstable region aloft where thunderstorms were able to build, and there were many reports of thundersnow with snowfall rates of 2 - 3 inches per hour. The authors claim that unusually high SSTs in the tropical Atlantic Ocean (1.5 °C above normal) led to an exceptional amount of moisture flowing into the storm, which resulted in very large amounts of snow. While the storm was in the right place at the right time to generate a large amount of snow, the new paper argues that the extreme snowfall amounts were magnified by ocean temperatures made warmer by climate change.


Figure 4. An infrared VIIRS image of the eye of Haiyan taken at 16:19 UTC November 7, 2013. At the time, Haiyan was at peak strength with 195 mph sustained winds. Image credit: NOAA/CIRA.

4) Super Typhoon Haiyan, 2013
Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Central Philippines on November 8, 2013, as one of the strongest tropical cyclones in world history, with peak surface winds estimated at 195 mph by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Haiyan killed over 7,700 people and did at least $13 billion in damage, making it the costliest and deadliest disaster in Philippine history, and Earth's deadliest natural disaster of 2013. The new study notes that oceanic heat content (OHC) and sea level had both risen significantly in the region since 1998 as a result of the negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. “Consequently, as the typhoon approached the Philippines, it was riding on very high SSTs with very deep support through the high OHC, and the strong winds and ocean mixing did not cause as much cooling as would normally be experienced, probably helping the storm to maintain its tremendous strength,” write the authors. “Moreover, the storm surge was undoubtedly exacerbated considerably by the sea levels, which were some 30 cm [12”] above 1993 values. Although natural variability through the PDO played a major role, there is also a global component through increased OHC from the Earth’s energy imbalance."

The Poor and the Earth Are Crying: The Pope's Encyclical on Climate Change

Published: Junio 18, 2015
"Earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she groans in travail."

One of the largest and oldest institutions on Earth--the Catholic Church--weighed in with these words today on the need to address the threat climate change poses to our common home. Pope Francis officially released his third papal encyclical, “Laudato Sii” (Be Praised), from the Vatican on Thursday. The 180-page encyclical is an enormous milestone in climate change awareness, and is sure to influence the critical December 2015 meeting in Paris to negotiate a new global binding treaty to limit emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.


Figure 1. Pope Francis holds an olive tree at the Vatican on September 1, 2014. Image credit: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images.

Papal encyclicals are among the highest-level documents produced by the Catholic Church. Each one focuses on a topic of keen importance to the Church itself or to society at large, and this time around the Pope specifically addresses “every person who inhabits this planet.” It is the seventh encyclical of the 21st century and the first one ever devoted to an environmental issue. In it, the Pope frequently invokes the life of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all those who study ecology and a champion for the poor and abandoned. The emphasis is not on climate science itself: the Pope agrees that rising global temperatures are primarily due to fossil fuel use, which is consistent with the conclusions of numerous national science societies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Pope’s main concern is with the ethical and moral facets of the problem, and our responsibility as stewards of Earth to deal with it. Here are some of the main themes put forth:
 
-- The book of Genesis tells us to "have dominion over the earth", which would seem to favor savage exploitation of nature by domineering and destructive humans. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible, as Genesis also tells us to "till and keep" the garden of the world.
 
-- What we are facing is primarily a spiritual crisis: "The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves. For human beings to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life–these are sins. For to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God." He argues strongly that we can work together to solve this spiritual crisis through right action, and urges us to "replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing."

-- Humans are mostly responsible for global warming: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”

-- While technology has brought tremendous progress, "our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience."

-- Technology based on fossil fuels--particularly coal, but also oil and to an extent, natural gas--must be replaced progressively and without delay: "There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy."
 
-- The rich, highly industrialized countries that have contributed the greatest emissions of greenhouse gases have the greatest responsibility to contribute to solution of the problems that they have caused. The poor countries, who have contributed little to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, will suffer the greatest harm, since they do not have the resources to adapt.
 
-- "Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction." People should change their lifestyles to consume less, and use the power of their purchases to positively affect the world: "purchasing is always a moral--and not simply economic act."
 
-- Action is being delayed by rich special interests that profit from the current situation: "The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented."

The encylical concludes with this powerful prayer:
 
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!
Amen

 
How will the encyclical be received?
Given that there are more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, this encyclical has the potential to directly influence a large segment of the world’s population. Some 20% of the U.S. population is Catholic (the United States ranks among the five countries with the most Catholics), so the encyclical should resonate widely here. The broad popularity of Pope Francis--about 7 in 10 Americans have a favorable view of him--will add to the encyclical’s reach.
 
As explained in this Q&A from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science: “While encyclicals do not compel Catholics to believe and act in accordance with what is said, the expectation is that all Catholics (and it is hoped all people of good will) will use the teaching as guidance for their life style and moral commitments. For theologians, both clerical and lay, relevant encyclicals have traditionally informed their scholarship and continue to do so.”
 
Francis is not the first Pope to lay claim to environmental awareness. The Yale Q&A cites several precedents, including the 1972 address “A Hospitable Earth for Future Generations,” presented by Pope Paul VI at the Stockholm Conference on the Environment. In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, climate scientist Mike Hulme asserts that “all of the world’s institutionalized faiths are strong on the duty of care for the created world. There is a reverence for life--a sacredness--that is central to nearly all religious writings, even if expressed in different ways.”
 
Surveys that compare attitudes on the environment across U.S. religious affiliations do show some major differences. But political affiliation may play the more crucial role, even for those within a particular sect. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found sharp divisions among Catholics on climate change, largely mirroring a broader partisan divide. The climate change cause has likely become more divisive than it otherwise would have been, in part, because its most famous proponent has been a politician, Al Gore. Even before the encyclical’s release, 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum (a Catholic) urged the Pope to “leave science to the scientists” and avoid “controversial scientific theories,” an illustration of how politics can trump religious affiliation when it comes to the highly polarized world of climate change. Katharine Hayhoe--who plays a major role in the U.S. discussion, as a person of faith and as a climate scientist based at Texas Tech University--weighed in on the intersection of climate, politics, and religion in recent essays for the websites Prairie Fire and The Conversation. In response to the question “Will evangelicals care (about the encyclical)?”, Hayhoe responds in the affirmative: “It’s because the theology on which we need to agree to care about climate change is so simple. Evangelical or Catholic, Episcopal or Apostolic, we all believe God created the world, even if we’re still arguing over the process by which that was accomplished.”
 
Today’s encyclical will add to the drumbeat building toward the crucial UN Conference of the Parties 21 meeting this December in Paris, where the successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol is expected to take shape. Between now and then, the Pope will continue bringing his message to the world at large, including the U.S. Congress in an address scheduled for September.
 
WU climate blogger Ricky Rood has more thoughts on the significance of this week’s encyclical.
 
Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Waiting for Il Papa

Published: Junio 14, 2015
Waiting for Il Papa

There is no doubt that Pope Francis draws audiences across the world like few others. This coming week, on June 18, Pope Francis is expected to deliver an encyclical on the environment, addressing climate change and planetary sustainability. An encyclical is a papal letter sent to bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. The letter will be distributed to, approximately, 5000 bishops, and then it is expected to be transmitted to the 400,000 priests and then 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. This encyclical will also get an enormous amount of attention outside of the Catholic Church.

In September of 2014, I wrote a blog on the New York Climate Summit and the large public march associated with the summit. The New York Climate Summit aimed to start a crescendo to focus on the 2015 Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP-Paris). The expectations in Paris are high – from their website, “The meeting will mark a decisive stage in negotiations on the future international agreement on a post-2020 regime, and will, as agreed in Durban, adopt the major outlines of that regime. By the end of the meeting, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, all the nations of the world, including the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, will be bound by a universal agreement on climate.” (For those who want to know more about the Conference of the Parties, go back to this blog and follow the links back.)

Pope Francis’s encyclical is intended to influence the deliberations at COP-Paris. The Vatican has been building up to the encyclical for some time. In January of 2015 in a visit to Tacloban in the Philippines, the Pope brought attention to climate change. Tacloban took a direct hit from Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda), which was the strongest typhoon/hurricane ever recorded at landfall.

The emerging and evolving Papal analysis is already upsetting politicians, lobbyists, and even some religious leaders in the U.S. Several news stories have raised the discomfort that the Pope’s views on climate change will bring to House Speaker John Boehner, and many others in the Republican Leadership. Likewise there are numerous reports that the Koch Brothers and the Heartland Institute have been trying to derail the Pope’s letter. The New York Times quotes Joseph Bast of the Heartland Institute, “The Holy Father is being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations who have proven unworthy of his trust …” Rick Santorum is getting attention on why he is better qualified to discuss climate change than the Pope. (What happened to that I’m not a scientist strategy?)

Though the historical Catholic Church has a notorious history with science, it is, today, not an organization that is inattentive to science or hiding from scientific evidence. One of the front men of the evolving encyclical is Marcelo Sánchez Soronda of the Pontifical Academy of Science, which includes the goal of “Promoting the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences, and the study of related epistemological questions and issues ...” I have had colleagues who attended Pontifical Universities in The Vatican and other countries as well. Despite Mr. Santorum’s concern about the Pope’s expertise on climate change, I am quite convinced that on this subject, solid, scientific advice can be provided to the Pope.

Market Watch, a Dow Jones publication, published a long opinion piece as a sneak preview of the encyclical. (author, Paul Farrell) Farrell states that there are 8 talking points that Boehner and “169 hard-line GOP climate-science deniers” will not want to hear when Pope Francis addresses congress on September 24, 2015. The emerging anticipated headline for the encyclical is “safeguard Creation, for we are the custodians of Creation. If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.” (Discussion of Custodians of Creation, at Climate Progress.org)

It is interesting to see the interpretation of The Guardian’s piece on the encyclical analyzed by Catholic Vote. A short quote from that piece that provides a nice summary of one of the philosophical tensions we face, “God gives us nature to serve man, not man to serve nature.”

During the buildup to the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009, there was also a lot of activity. In September of 2009, Pope Benedict said, “The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator Who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us guidelines that assist us as stewards of His creation. …” Last week (June 10, 2015), Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said, “I think the church has always been on the side of science over the years, and this is certainly one (issue – climate change) that the science is telling us some things that require us to credential action.” The Papal encyclical is part of a year of events that feels different here in 2015 than 2009. I like the way the argument is going.

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Some other references:

April 28, 2015 Vatican Conference

Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development

A Green Wearing White

Pope Francis to Host Major Summit on Climate Change

Pope Francis Calls on Christians to Fight Climate Change

Pope Francis endorses climate action petition





Figure 1: A ton of carbon dioxide in Copenhagen. It’s still about the same size and we have a lot more of them in the atmosphere.
About the Blogs
These blogs are a compilation of Dr. Jeff Masters,
Dr. Ricky Rood, and Angela Fritz on the topic of climate change, including science, events, politics and policy, and opinion.
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