Pope v. Speaker

Co-written with Ashley Mercer and Kimberley Mullins

How do two Catholics -- the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the pope -- respond to a question about climate change?

The politician says that believing carbon dioxide is dangerous is "almost comical" and punctuates his answer with a fart joke. The pontiff assembles a panel of scientists to investigate the matter and issues a report pleading with humanity to take urgent action.

As you might have guessed, we are not really joking.

On May 11, 2011, the Pontifical Academy of Science issued a report, titled Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene, that articulates the Holy See's position on climate change. The report unequivocally states that humans are causing climate change. It warns the world that the cost of not acting swiftly "pales in comparison to the price [future generations] will pay if we fail to act now." Finally, the report calls for immediate reductions of carbon dioxide, dark soot, methane and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), as well as for climate change adaptation measures.

That's right -- this is the same religious institution that persecuted Galileo and did not acknowledge for nearly 300 years that the Earth revolves around the sun. Yes, this is the same Church with a historically skeptical view of scientific knowledge. Yet just last week, the Catholic Church publicly acknowledged that current scientific results are not only persuasive enough to accept climate change as a reality, but also to compel sweeping action.

In the report, the Vatican aligns itself with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the vast majority of the scientific community. In fact, several scientists on Pope Benedict XVI's panel played a significant role on the IPCC. Both the Pontifical Academy of Science and IPCC conclude that combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and oil, moves carbon from its secured place underground up into the atmosphere. When carbon enters the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, it traps heat produced by the sun. As carbon dioxide increases, this blanket becomes thicker and the Earth warms. Over long periods and changes in carbon dioxide levels, the Earth's temperature will get warmer. Scientists, and now the pope, believe that changes in the long-term average temperature of our planet put our existence, as well as the existence of flora and fauna that surround us, in danger.

Yet in the country of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, the debate seems still to be stuck on threshold questions: Is climate change real? Does human activity cause global warming? Many Americans find their government paralyzed by the lack of simple acknowledgement that our climate is changing, even though politicians have access to the same scientific data as the pope. For example, not a single Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to acknowledge the EPA's scientific finding regarding the existence of climate change. Ignorance of scientific facts is also seen on the other side of the aisle -- three "Blue Dog" Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in the aforementioned committee to advance the bill that would strip the EPA of its authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. We are witnessing a remarkable phenomenon: As the Catholic Church employs scientific knowledge to call for action on important issues, some politicians utilize selected religious texts to bury their heads in the sand. Congressman John Shimkus serves as a prime example -- he offered verses from the Bible books of Genesis and Matthew to try to calm any fears about climate change. Is it us or are some members of Congress vying to take the place of the 16th-century Catholic Church in dogmatically opposing well-supported scientific conclusions?

Just as we now look back to the Catholic Church's long-held belief that the sun revolves around the Earth, our grandchildren will look back on our collective ineptitude, recognizing that we understood the strong likelihood of a man-made global environmental crisis long before we acted -- if we ever do.

We fully recognize that addressing climate change will not be easy. The appropriate approach to combating the problem should be subject to an open and vigorous debate. However, continuing discussion about the existence of climate change -- and human activities as its primary cause -- simply amounts to ignoring the obvious.

If the overwhelming scientific evidence is not convincing enough, Speaker of the House John Boehner now has an opportunity to consult with his chief spiritual adviser, who left no questions about the church's view on the issue. And if the speaker needs an illustration of what the world would look like if we fail to act, the Book of Revelation can provide that. After all, like the glaciers, the space to hide from reality is retreating quickly.