When Hippolyt Pul was a young boy, farmers in his native Ghana often referred to the Feast of the Ascension as “the Feast of the Bean Leaf.” The region’s first rains came like clockwork each year right after Easter, so farmers planted their first seeds no more than two weeks after the holy day.
“The black bean was one of the first crops to be planted, as its leaves served as an important stop-gap food for the many households whose granaries would have run empty by this time of the year,” Pul recently wrote in an e-mail to Dennis Fisher, education-program officer for Catholic Relief Services’ Northeast Office.
“So consistent was the rainfall pattern that by the time Ascension was celebrated, the hungry would be fed with the bean leaves. By the third week of June, the bean crop itself was taken in to boost household food security,” wrote Pul, director of CRS’ West Africa Regional Office.
But farmers in Ghana no longer refer to the Feast of the Bean Leaf, because the rains have become erratic in recent years, Pul said. Long periods of drought punctuated by heavy downpours and flash floods made it impossible for people to plant soon after Easter and expect a harvest by the Feast of the Ascension, he said.
“People blame the change on the strange and unpredictable behavior of the rain,” wrote Pul, who said he believes this disruption is caused by global climate change.
Defining the issue
Most people had heard about global climate change even before former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” stirred a firestorm of media attention and debate. National interest in the topic intensified in February, when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a summary of its latest report about global climate change and its likely causes and effects.
“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level,” states the summary from the IPCC, a panel of international scientists.
The earth’s climate is changing because the sun’s energy is being trapped inside the earth’s atmosphere, according to David Gahl, air- and energy-programs director for Environmental Advocates of New York, a government watchdog group.
As the sun’s energy heats the earth, a portion of the energy radiates back into space. But four main “greenhouse gases” — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor — prevent a significant share of the energy from escaping the atmosphere, Gahl said. Without this “greenhouse effect,” the earth could be as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it is today, according to Environmental Advocates’ “Forecast for New York,” a 2006 report on the local effects of climate change.
In the last few decades, however, scientists have noticed that the air concentrations of greenhouse-gas particles — especially carbon-dioxide particles — have increased, Gahl said. The IPCC estimates that the air concentration of carbon dioxide in 1750 was about 280 parts per million, while the concentration in 2005 had climbed to 379 parts per million.
The growing concentration of these gases is trapping more of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere, causing the global temperature to rise, Gahl said.
“Overall, our average temperatures have increased by one degree Fahrenheit,” he said.
A one-degree increase might not seem like cause for alarm, but scientists warn that a slightly higher temperature is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to global climate change. That is why scientists are moving away from using the term “global warming” to describe the situation, according to “Understanding and Responding to Climate Change,” a report published by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
During the last several decades, the IPCC summary noted, polar ice sheets have been losing mass, and the average temperature of the oceans has increased, causing sea waters to expand and sea levels to rise. In the North Atlantic there has been an increase in intense tropical-storm activity, and many parts of the world have seen a significant increase in precipitation, while other regions have experienced more intense and longer droughts, according to the summary.
Burden on the poor
Ghana’s bean farmers are not the only ones to feel the effects of global climate change. Catholic Relief Services staff in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Niger and Nicaragua also have witnessed changes in their local weather patterns, Fisher said. Severe flooding in Bangladesh has left many people homeless, while farmers in the other areas are now dealing with warmer winters and increased drought, flooding and food insecurity.
Poor and impoverished people will inevitably have a harder time adapting to new weather patterns than will their more affluent counterparts, according to Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Policy.
“The poor by the very definition of poverty have inadequate resources to address many problems, including climate change. They often live in the flood or drought plains (and) depend upon natural resources for sustenance,” Bishop Wenski told the Catholic Courier. “An easy example is New Orleans. While no one can say (Hurricane) Katrina was caused directly by climate change, one can easily see that the poor were disproportionately affected. This is usually the case in most of these natural disasters.”
Poor people have fewer resources to deal with life’s challenges to begin with and don’t need more hurdles to jump, noted Kathy Dubel, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of Chemung and Schuyler counties. And, as Pul noted, global climate change also is leading to deeper hunger problems and food insecurity for many impoverished or low-income people, she said.
Acting with prudence
Scientists have documented increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide for at least a decade, Gahl said, although they initially were not sure whether the increase was due to human activity or natural forces. In recent months, he noted, there has been increased agreement among scientists about the causes of global climate change.
“They’ve concluded that … it’s very likely that human activity has caused these higher concentrations,” he said.
According to the IPCC summary, widespread warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, coupled with the loss of ice mass, support the conclusion that global climate change over the past 50 years is not due to natural causes alone.
Human activities most responsible for this change are the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of carbon-dioxide particles, Gahl said. Power plants and automobiles are two main producers of such emissions, Dubel added.
Even if the scientific community never agreed on the causes of global climate change, Bishop Wenski said he still would have encouraged Catholics to follow some scientists’ recommendations about curbing carbon-dioxide emissions because it is obvious that something seriously harmful is occurring.
“Therefore it is better to act now than wait until the problem gets worse and the remedies more costly,” Bishop Wenski wrote in a Feb. 7 letter to congressional leaders.
Being proactive about climate change means taking such precautionary measures as reducing the energy used to run one’s home, Dubel said. Such measures — coupled with reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions — can help decrease the effects of global climate change, she said, and nothing will be lost by the effort even if later research proves human activity was not the culprit.
“Our role as Catholics is not to take sides in the scientific debate, but to promote care for creation and its inhabitants as gifts from God, and to work toward what is life-promoting,” Bishop Wenski told the Courier. “It is our responsibility to communicate Catholic social teaching and how that teaching is applied to the protection of the poor and marginalized in the instances of climate change.”
Catholic social teaching also calls Catholics to work for the common good and be good stewards of the earth, Bishop Wenski said. Catholics can answer both calls by taking steps — such as reducing their energy use and carbon-dioxide emissions — to help slow global climate change, since protecting the earth is inherently in the interest of the common good.
Church social teaching mandates that Catholics consider how an issue affects not only themselves, but also the poor and marginalized around them as well as God’s gifts, including the earth, Dubel said. Catholics need to be attentive and look at what’s going on around them through the lens of faith and its teachings, rather than from partisan or political angles.
“It’s not just me and myself concerned, but how will God’s gifts be preserved for the future generations? Global climate change brings that into sharp focus. This is our earthly home, and if we destroy it, what does that say about our respect for God our creator?” she asked.
The issue of global climate change has been on the Catholic Church’s radar since at least 1990, Dubel noted, when Pope John Paul II mentioned it in his World Day of Peace message, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.”
“That was what I think got us moving in the United States and around the world, looking more closely at environmental issues and Catholic social teaching,” she said.
The U.S. bishops followed up on the pope’s message in 1993 by releasing the pastoral letter “Renewing the Earth,” which urged Catholics to look at their stewardship of the earth.
In 2001, the bishops released a pastoral statement focusing solely on global climate change. “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good” raised awareness of the need to integrate the issue into social-justice and public-policy ministries, Dubel said.
Scientists have published more data on global climate change since the bishops’ 2001 pastoral statement, and Bishop Wenski said the bishops have become even more convinced of the need to address the issue for the sake of the poor.
In his letter to congressional leaders, he urged politicians to focus on the demands of prudence, the pursuit of the common good and a priority for the poor when establishing policies related to global climate change. While government action is necessary to bring about the big changes needed to slow climate change, Dubel noted that individuals can make a difference, too.
Doing something as simple as switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent light bulbs can help, she noted. Fluorescent lights use less energy, thus lowering the demand for energy and the amount of carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants that generate the electricity.
A number of Web sites also suggest practical ways people can reduce their energy consumption, she said. Two such sites are www.fightglobalwarming.com and www.nyipl.org, the home page of New York Interfaith Power & Light.
It’s also important to keep informed about the issue, Dubel said.
To that end, the New York State Catholic Conference last year used grant funding from the USCCB to conduct a daylong workshop on global climate change. The conference also gave $1,000 in grant money to each of New York’s eight dioceses for use in global climate change-awareness programs, Dubel said.
The Rochester Diocese used its allocation to start a grants program for parish and school initiatives that raise awareness of global climate change and its moral dimensions. Grants will be awarded by April 30.
The diocesan Public Policy Committee also identified global climate change as an education priority for 2007, and in March the committee began publishing a monthly newsletter on the topic. Parishes and schools can use material from the newsletter to help make parishioners and students aware of the issue and what they can do about it, Dubel said.
More information on global climate change will be available during “Faithfully Caring for Creation,” an Earth Day symposium presented by the Greater Rochester Community of Churches and the local interfaith environmental group Living in Harmony in God’s World. The symposium will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. April 22 at Reformation Lutheran Church, 11 N. Chestnut St., Rochester.
“Each person has a responsibility to become more informed about the issue, engaged in advocacy efforts to help shape public policy, and make lifestyle changes that preserve and protect the life and dignity of all,” Bishop Wenski said.