Environmental Degradation and Climate Collapse
What’s the difference and how does each affect how we live?
How each relates to Laudato Si’and our faith-based response
by J. Stephen Cleghorn, PhD
July 26, 2019 presentation to Colombiere Jesuit Community, Baltimore, MD
“So today I am here to speak both about acting on environmental degradation and responding to the imminent climate collapse that poses an existential threat to all life on planet Earth. These are both environmental issues, but of such a different character and import that we decrease the chances of human survival if we overly conflate them.”
Good afternoon, Gentlemen,
Thank you for having me. Little did I know when I first visited your Laudato Si’ study group that I would be asked to come speak to you about environmental degradation and climate collapse, both of which are threatening all life on Earth, all God’s creation
But here I am, and today I will be drawing upon three texts.
- Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ – On Caring for Our Common Home
- David Wallace-Wells book “The Uninhabitable Earth – Life After Warming”
- Father Thomas Berry’s book “The Dream of the Earth”
It was my intention to take you deeply into each of these texts, but time will not allow that, and so I can only allow a brief glimpse inside each with the encouragement that you have a copy in your library for reading and reflection.
When I first met with your Laudato Si’ study group, we talked about issues of “environmental degradation.” As our response to such degradation, we discussed: recycling and composting here at Colombiere retirement community. We talked about air pollution and damages caused by harmful particulates put into the air by trash incineration like BRESCO in southwest Baltimore, falling most of all on a poor community with the highest rate of asthma in the city; or the coal-fired generation of electricity, from which Maryland gets most of its energy, and the dangerous particulates it releases into the air in addition to CO2 emissions. We talked about pushing our Maryland Catholic Conference to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act in the state legislature, to commit Maryland to getting 50% of its electrical energy from clean, renewable sources by 2040 and 100% by 2050 – because clean energy (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal) is better than dirty power, both in terms of public health and the environment at large. We discussed the necessary political actions we could take, within the church and in the state legislature, to get that bill passed, and we succeeded at that small step.
These issues are important to what Pope Francis calls “care for our common home” in his encyclical, but they focus mostly on one aspect of how humanity is destroying the earth by our presence and lifestyle. Such “environmental degradation” issues have long concerned environmentalists – polluting air and water; depleting fresh water supply (Did you know that “As soon as 2030, global water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent”? – David Wallace-Wells); the loss of land and habitat; millions of rainforest acres cleared for production of food for animals to satisfy our taste for meat; the loss of biodiversity in what scientists are now calling “the Sixth Mass Extinction,” this one caused by humans; the consumption and wasting of resources, including 30% waste of food produced by our farms; dead zones in the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico created by runoff of animal waste and fossil-fuel fertilizers from farms; the same inorganic (oil-based) fertilizers killing our soils; pesticide use killing our pollinators on which we depend for food; Marylanders on the Eastern Shore choking from toxic air pollution wafting out of massive chicken CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations); the destructive practice of fracking to obtain fossil fuels at a cost to public health and water contamination (plus being a greater contributor of “greenhouses gases” than the combustion of coal); the use of this fracked gas to create massive new plants like the $3 Billion “cracker” plant being built outside Pittsburgh to produce billions more single-use plastic products; microplastics found everywhere from the 7-mile depths of the Marianas trench in the Pacific Ocean to the highest point of the Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France, 100 miles from the nearest city; plastics in our air and inside our blood streams; and so forth. All examples of environmental degradation. (Not a complete list by any means).
These are the issues that caused Pope Francis to write: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (21).
So “environmental degradation” is one aspect on which Laudato Si’ focuses, but there is another, more serious and more imminent threat to God’s Creation, one that goes by several names – i.e., global warming, the climate crisis, and more often now being referred to as “climate collapse.”
At the heart of climate collapse is our extraction and burning of fossil fuels for energy, the very energy that has improved the lives of billions but now threatens to destroy us because our combustion of fossil fuels, and emissions of gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, ignores the laws of Nature, which we dare not do.
We must remind ourselves always, as the writer-farmer Wendell Berry put it:
“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
Pope Francis refers to our destructive energy production and consumption when he writes that “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…substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.” (26) He states clearly that “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. 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.” (23)
This is our Catholic teaching now, and we better take heed of it.
In this presentation I take global warming caused by humans (to which Pope Francis refers) as an established fact, but instead of speaking of the “climate change” that results from warming, I prefer to use the term “climate collapse” because it more accurately evokes what we are facing.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that irreversible climate collapse could begin, and not be reversed, if humanity does not slash global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below 2010 levels by 2030, then reach net zero by 2050. (Net zero means the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere is no more than the amount taken out). So, there we have, for the first time, a solid deadline for action – 12 years from 2018 to 2030 to reduce emissions worldwide by 45% from 2010 levels – but of course emissions continue to rise.
When you see young people from the Sunrise Movement wearing black t-shirts with that one number “12” on it, they are trying to communicate what the UN IPCC has told us.
The “safe” level of carbon in the atmosphere, 350 ppm (parts per million), was exceeded in 1990 and we are now at 415 ppm. The level of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere is rising, by three (3) parts per million in 2016.
If that continues, we will reach 448 ppm by 2030. Moreover, “the tough reality is that the effects of CO2 already present in the biosphere are irreversible and intensifying rapidly…a consensus of scientific research tell s us that a minimum of three degrees Celsius (3°C) warning is already baked into the system under current global climate pledges.” (Truthout – March 4, 2019 Editorial)
To put this in perspective, David Wallace-Wells, in his book “The Uninhabitable Earth,” writes: “Even if we pull the planet up short of two degrees Celsius (2°C) warming by 2100, we will be left with an atmosphere that contains 500 parts per million of carbon— perhaps more. The last time that was the case, 16 million years ago, the planet was not two degrees warmer; it was somewhere between five and eight, giving the planet about 130 feet of sea-level rise, enough to draw a new American coastline as far west as I-95.” (Note: 2°C equals 3.6°F, and 5°C would mean a global temperature rise of 9°F)
Wallace-Wells opens his book with these ominous words:
“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.
None of this is true.”
So now we are talking not only about specific degradations of the environment but an existential issue, an ecocide willfully perpetrated by humans. As Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who is quoted in Laudato Si’, puts it: “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”.
The sinfulness is all around us and in each of us. Even the food we eat is being degraded by emission of CO2 into the atmosphere: “Over the past fifteen years, (there has been) a dramatic effect of carbon dioxide on human nutrition unanticipated by plant physiologists: it can make plants bigger, but those bigger plants are less nutritious…Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising…We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history—[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” Since 1950, much of the good stuff in the plants we grow—protein, calcium, iron, vitamin C, to name just four—has declined by as much as one-third, a landmark 2004 study showed. Everything is becoming more like junk food. Even the protein content of bee pollen has dropped by a third.” (p.57, The Uninhabitable Earth). Add to this that “global food production accounts for about a third of all emissions, (and) to avoid dangerous climate change, Greenpeace has estimated that the world needs to cut its meat and dairy consumption in half by 2050.” (p.54, The Uninhabitable Earth)
Our planet is becoming uninhabitable to much of all life as we know it. Climate collapse is about far more than sea-level rise, as Wallace-Wells makes abundantly clear. Along with that rise in temperature comes droughts and fires and floods and mass migrations of people desperately trying to survive, as some of those detained on our southern border are doing right now, who are just a few from among the 2.8 million people facing hunger in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America hit by drought.
While we may be able to clean up a degraded environment by a number of means we already have, we are right now, not so far in the future, risking irreversible climate collapse; and although we have means to mitigate that to some extent, we will be hard-pressed to stop and reverse what is already underway. We may be able to clean the world of plastic pollution (at least its visible forms), but the use of fossil fuel to make plastic, and more of it all the time, until we stop that production, will continue to contribute to global warming and continue changing the chemistry of the oceans so that coral reefs and other marine life die off. A reported 96% of all warmth created by humans has been absorbed by the ocean and the resulting change in ocean chemistry is making the oceans more inhospitable to life. According to the World Resources Institute, by 2030 ocean warming and acidification will threaten 90 percent of all reefs. “This is very bad news, because reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food and income for half a billion people.” (p.96. The Uninhabitable Earth). Our problem is much harder than scooping up plastic or developing means to replace plastic for the myriad of uses it has.
By the way, plastic pollution, that environmental degradation, is also much worse than you think. We have all heard of “the Great Pacific garbage patch” twice the size of Texas, floating freely in the Pacific Ocean. Says Wallace-Wells: “It is not actually an island—in fact, it is not actually a stable mass, …it is mostly composed of larger-scale plastics, of the kind visible to the human eye…(M)icroplastic bits—700,000 of them can be released into the surrounding environment by a single washing-machine cycle—are more insidious. And, believe it or not, more pervasive: a quarter of fish sold in Indonesia and California contain plastics, according to one recent study. European eaters of shellfish, one estimate has suggested, consume at least 11,000 bits each year…The direct effect on ocean life is even more striking. The total number of marine species said to be adversely affected by plastic pollution has risen from 260 in 1995, when the first assessment was carried out, to 690 in 2015 and 1,450 in 2018. A majority of fish tested in the Great Lakes contained microplastics, as did the guts of 73 percent of fish surveyed in the northwest Atlantic… Microplastics have been found in beer, honey, and sixteen of seventeen tested brands of commercial sea salt, across eight different countries…and while nobody yet knows the health impact on humans, in the oceans a plastic microbead is said to be one million times more toxic than the water around it… We can breathe in microplastics, even when indoors, where they’ve been detected suspended in the air, and do already drink them: they are found in the tap water of 94 percent of all tested American cities. And global plastic production is expected to triple by 2050, when there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. (The Uninhabitable Earth, p.104-106)
This is the world we are bequeathing to our children. My children, my grandchildren and their children, your grand-nephews and grand-nieces, and their children, will more than likely be faced with trying to live on a filthy, dying planet.
We have some answering to do our children coming after us, even some repentance, about the filth, but even more so about climate collapse, which we have not completely owned as the generation that has contributed the most to it.
On the issue of culpability for climate collapse, Wallace-Wells makes that clear in this passage: “Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.
The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85 percent. The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime—the planet brought from seeming stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral.” (p.4, The Uninhabitable Earth)
We each have a stake in acknowledging that, and we each have things we can do personally (as repentance, may I say?), as a community of men, as a parish or diocese. and in the public square of local, state and national politics, such as advocating for Catholic Church divestment from fossil fuel investments and educating our young about care for creation (or is it they who are educating us?).
So today I am here to speak both about acting on environmental degradation and responding to the imminent climate collapse that poses an existential threat to all life on planet Earth. I encourage all of us to reflect on the difference between these distinct but related threats to life, between personal responsibility (like recycling, composting and zero-waste practices where and how we live), and community-scale actions, political action, systems of energy and less waste and municipal level waste disposal that must be created, and other big picture actions at the scale of the problem, to care for our common home. These are both environmental issues, but of such a different character and import that we decrease the chances of human survival if we overly conflate them and rely simply on doing the smaller things we can do (and even those are sometimes hard to do). Recycling and composting, as good and important as they are, will mean nothing if we do not get away from burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation – by car, ship and airplane – or using it to make plastics, or putting it in into our soils for food.
As Thomas Berry writes in “The Dream of the Earth”: “Pragmatic efforts (such as recycling and composting) at establishing a viable way into the future are urgently needed and invaluable. They are indispensable in any effort to deal with that future. I do not wish to diminish what is being done. I wish only to indicate that the basic difficulty lies deeper in the human mind and emotions than is generally recognized. If the reorientation of mind is not effected, then whatever remedy is proposed will not succeed in the purposes it intends. So far, we have not been able to effect a major change in inner attitude.”
Thomas Berry’s “reorientation of mind” is what Pope Francis calls “ecological conversion” (220) which, Francis says, “entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems…We do not understand our superiority as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather as a different capacity which, in its turn, entails a serious responsibility stemming from our faith.”
Thomas Berry makes the point even more succinctly: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. The devastation of the planet can be seen as a direct consequence of the loss of this capacity for human presence to and reciprocity with the nonhuman world.” (Evening Thoughts, Thomas Berry)
And he tells us how difficult this will be: “The power of the industrial system is in the pervasive feeling throughout the society that there is no truly human survival or fulfillment except in opposition to the…the natural world. Nothing must be left in its natural state. Everything must be sacralized by human use, even though this is momentary, and the consequence is an irreversible degradation of the planet.” (p. 213, “The Dream of the Earth”)
(T. Berry): “We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement that in (our times) the glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth and now the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship. (2006 interview)
(T. Berry): “These consequences are now becoming manifest. The day of reckoning has come. In this disintegrating phase of our industrial society, we now see ourselves not as the splendor of creation, but as the most pernicious of earthly being.
We are the termination, not the fulfillment of the earth process. If there were a parliament of creatures, its first decision might well be to vote the humans out of the community, too deadly a presence to tolerate any further. We are the affliction of the world, its demonic presence. We are the violation of earth’s most sacred aspects.” (p. 209, “The Dream of the Earth“)
And to this I would say that there is a parliament of creatures, and collectively they are called Nature, and Nature does not need humans to continue, and Nature will make this world a place where humans are thrown out of the community, denied the means to live because of our own assaults against Nature and destruction of millions of Nature’s beautiful life forms, so that Nature can, slowly, remake the Earth without destructive human beings.
Pope Francis concurs with Thomas Berry in Laudato Si’ – that all human institutions, especially the church, which we think of as a divine institution, albeit a quite sinful one at times, will be judged by how we show respect for life and care for God’s creation in how we relate to Nature, and in the actions we take (or fail to take) to continue the creation story or to end it.
If we say all will be well if we reduce our community’s energy use, get more LED lights, replace inefficient appliances with energy-efficient ones, move away from a diet built around meat to one that is plant-based, recycle all our plastic, collect all our food waste for the compost pile, bicycle (if we are able) to the store or take the bus, or even put a solar array on our roof or on our grounds, we would be wrong in saying all will be well, much as these things need to be done. We must get to scale on building a clean energy world, and even that may not be enough, which is why some are calling for more than fixes and mitigation, but for “deep adaptation” based on a “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures but joined in a splendid universal communion.”
Truth is, we really do not know how we will live and survive even 30 years from now if warming feedback processes overtake our best laid plans at fixes and mitigation.
Again, Pope Francis: “(Our sister Earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (2)
“If we approach nature and the environment without…openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs… (11) “(Ecological conversion) entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. (220)
Thomas Berry puts it like this: “The visible world about us is our primary scripture, the primary manifestation of the divine, and this for human communities throughout the entire planet…We should be clear about what happens when we destroy the living forms of this planet. The first consequence is that we destroy modes of divine presence. If we have a wonderful sense of the divine, it is because we live amid such awesome magnificence. If we have refinement of emotion and sensitivity, it is because of the delicacy, the fragrance, and indescribable beauty of song and music and rhythmic movement in the world about us. If we grow in our life vigor, it is because the earthly community challenges us, forces us to struggle to survive, but in the end reveals itself as a benign providence. But however benign, it must provide that absorbing drama of existence whereby we can experience the thrill of being alive in fascinating and unending sequence of adventures…If we have powers of imagination, these are activated by the magic display of color and sound, of form and movement, such as we observe in the clouds of the sky, the trees and bushes and flowers, the waters and the wind, the singing birds, and the movement of the great blue whale through the sea. If we have words with which to speak and think and commune, words for the inner experience of the divine, words for the intimacies of life, if we have words for telling stories to our children, words with which we can sing, it is again because of the impressions we have received from the variety of beings around us.” (p.11 – “The Dream of the Earth” by Thomas Berry)
So, what can we do? Should we hope or despair? Is the world we have made doomed to die of climate collapse? The sources I read have differing answers:
Thomas Berry sees a science that is awakening us to who we really are as part of Nature and the Universe, with Nature revealing itself in a special way now: “Here we might observe that the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the Earth. If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.” (T. Berry, “The New Story,” in The Dream of the Earth, p.137.)
David Wallace-Wells is not so sure, says that what happens next is more a question of the social sciences than the physical and biological ones: “But while there are a few things science does not know about how the climate system will respond to all the carbon we’ve pumped into the air, the uncertainty of what will happen—that haunting uncertainty—emerges not from scientific ignorance but, overwhelmingly, from the open question of how we respond. That is, principally, how much more carbon we decide to emit, which is not a question for the natural sciences but the human ones. Climatologists can, today, predict with uncanny accuracy where a hurricane will hit, and at what intensity, as much as a week out from landfall; this is not just because the models are good but because all the inputs are known. When it comes to global warming, the models are just as good, but the key input is a mystery: What will we do?” The lessons there are unfortunately bleak. Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves.” (p.43-44, The Uninhabitable Earth)
In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis writes: “Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation (61)…Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities. (165)
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old autistic Swedish schoolgirl who ignited a worldwide boycott of classes on Fridays, saying “Why should we study for a future that may not exist anymore?” – has put it this way. “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act…The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. The hardest because our current economics are still totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create everlasting economic growth…We have to act urgently, because we simply have to find a way…When we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope – look for action.”
The youth of Our Children’s Trust who are in court trying to establish a constitutional right to a life-sustaining climate, have already convinced one federal judge to say what may turn out to be historic words: “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” – US District Judge Ann Aiken
Gentlemen, this is our challenge. You and me. We can look around and see the children leading us, because we have not done so, not in the degree needed; but nonetheless we’re not dead yet. Given the seriousness of what I have described today, we need to be reaching out to all our families, our friends, sounding the alarms, changing our lifestyle practices, expending what energy we have left to rescue God’s creation, our Common Home, from a death of our own making. This is not just another discussion topic. This is a topic that should impel us to take the kind of action that gives hope.
Our grandchildren, our grand-nephews and grand-nieces, could well be facing the end of all life on Earth, and a violent, chaotic world of desperate people scrambling for resources, one of worldwide desperate migrations beyond imagining. What can we do in the time we have left to protect the children who must live in the deeply damaged world we are leaving them?
 “Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home,” an environmental encyclical by Pope Francis. 2015
 Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers — all of which are forms of plastic — are now about 60 percent of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide. – Wikipedia
 Berry wrote these words in 1998, 31 years ago, before the worst decades of CO2 emissions began.