Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pell on climate: a cardinal sin

Sydney's Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, is a man of strong convictions, unafraid of treading on toes within his own church or the wider religious community.

In a US lecture in April 2006, he controversially called Islam an intolerant religion whose "capacity for fear-reaching renovation is severely limited".

The lecture made headlines around the world, and Muslim leaders rebuked Pell's "ignorance".

Some western commentators praised him for voicing concerns many people harboured privately.

Pell has equally forceful views about climate change, having warned the fears about the consequences of global warming are exaggerated, and that the scientific evidence linking it to human activity is tenuous at best.

In February, he referred to a television program on El Nino, saying it "was designed to frighten us, like the sermons on hell in my youth, suggesting that the collapse of a north Peruvian civilisation was caused by it".

In his Easter message this year, Pell referred to general unease about the climate. "We are told El Nino has disappeared, but the drought is not over in most parts. And we have the threat of global warming. It is to be hoped the one true God will accept all those carbon credits. The Christian God is not an insurance broker, and his Son had more than his share of trouble. Neither did Jesus say anything on global warming, although he said much on the struggle between good and evil, meaning and fear, love and hate."

Pell's use of the Bible and sly humour to play down the need to address climate change would have attracted little attention two years ago. But with science having established almost conclusively that climate change is human-induced, the ranks of deniers has thinned.

At the same time, religious groups and churches around the world (with the exception of some United States evangelical leaders) are warning of the dangers of climate change and environmental damage and lobbying governments to take the issues seriously.

Even the Catholic Church is paying attention.

Pope Benedict expressed hope that a Vatican conference on climate change last April would result in "research and promotion of styles of life and models of production and consumption which are designed for respect of creation".

Australia is at the forefront of a developing religious consensus on raising public awareness about climate change.

Earlier this year, 16 of the nation's leading faith communities, including Catholics, issued a document containing a number of theological and spiritual statements on climate change.

One of the leaders of this movement is the head of the Anglican Church's international body on the environment (and Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn) George Browning.

He says we have exploited God's creation to breaking point and concern for climate change is a core matter of faith for Christians.

The Church's national synod in Canberra this week discussed initiatives to ensure 23 dioceses could reduce their carbon footprints.

Browning took issue with Pell's Easter message, saying the comments were "almost unbelievable" and that "Jesus had an awful lot to say about the rich taking what belonged to the poor and about the heritage of the children, and as He spoke about both of these things, He spoke about climate change."

Browning's remark highlighted the responsibility of developing countries to tackle climate change on behalf of the world's poorest nations.

But his later comments that Pell's position defies scientific consensus and theological imperatives to protect the environment are correct.

Pell's response was to repeat his scepticism about claims of an impending man-made catastrophe, and reserve his right to "engage with reality, to debate on important issues, to open people's minds and to point out when the emperor is wearing few or no clothes".

However, it's Pell who looks naked, particularly as his fellow bishops already agree that Australian Catholics must mobilise to face the challenges of climate change. Almost two years ago, they called for the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and greater efforts by government to "support international structures that help reduce global warming".

The Catholic Church's views on climate change, or any other matter, are not monolithic, of course.

Though activists are speaking out, the views of sceptics still carry considerable weight, especially within the Vatican.

Many commentators portrayed the April conference in Rome as a sign that the Church was aligning itself with the secular environmental movement.

But many bishops and cardinals believe the Holy See should not amplify alarms.

While Pell's comments might find favour in some parts of the Vatican, they look reactionary and blinkered in Australia, where increasingly the consensus among Catholic and other church leaders, as well as lay people, is that the problems of climate change are man-made, and that it is better to act now than to wait until those problems get worse, and the remedies more costly. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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