The issue of global climate change raises two central religious and moral concerns --how are we to fulfill God's call to be stewards of creation in an age when we have the capacity to significantly, and perhaps irrevocably, alter that creation; and how can we, as a family of nations, exercise stewardship in a way that respects the integrity of nature itself while simultaneously providing for economic and social progress based on justice?
The Science of Global Climate Change
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the United Nations in 1988, has issued a series of reports. The Panel is publishing its third set of reports in spring, 2001. These reports are expected to confirm and strengthen earlier findings that there is human inducement to climate change, beyond the variations that are considered natural and normal. While impact scenarios abound, certitude about them does not. What is uncertain is the rate of climate change, the period of time involved, and the full extent of environmental and social impacts.
The reports suggest that impacts from climate change will vary across the globe. Some regions will gain benefits while others will experience problems. Those countries with more financial resources and advanced technological capacity will more easily adapt. The IPCC reports point to concerns about rising ocean levels, melting of mountain glaciers, increasing frequency and intensity of more extreme weather events, sever stress on forests, wetland and other habitats, dislocation of agriculture and some threats to human health. The effects, benefits, and burdens of a more rapid change in global climate are uneven. What is clear is that the poor are likely to suffer the most because they have fewer resources for adaptation and live in the most effected regions.
The Framework Convention on Global Climate Change
At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, more than 150 countries signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change. It has since been ratified by 180 countries including the United States. The signatories agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The agreement was voluntary. The parties at Rio recognized "common but differentiated" responsibilities between the developed and the developing countries.
In 1995, the Parties to the Climate Convention met in Berlin and admitted that voluntary measures were not working. The conferees proposed binding targets for the industrialized countries and phased in targets for developing countries. China and other large developing countries, e.g., Mexico, South Korea, and India, resist mandatory targets for their economies fearing interference in their economic development. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed with these binding targets for industrialized countries but not for the developing ones.
The Current Political Debate
The politics of global climate change is fueled by the perceived economic, social, and political costs. While some still question the basic science of climate change, most of the public debate focuses on proposed solutions. Some fear moving too fast will cripple economic growth across the globe. Others fear waiting too long to act will mean taking more drastic measures later. Poorer countries blame richer ones for creating the problem in the first place. Richer countries spar over goals and procedures and increasingly want the poorer countries to fully participate.
The Congressional debate mirrors the global debate. Perceived losers, particularly in the energy and agriculture industries and certain labor representatives, are wary of mandatory emission reductions. Proponents of doing something about climate change point toward a softer economic landing if we take action now. But a unifying theme of the Congressional discussion is that both developing and developed countries must adopt similar measures in the same time frame.
The Kyoto Protocol has not been submitted for ratification to the U.S. Senate. The new Bush Administration has not yet declared its negotiating position for the next round of international talks scheduled for May, 2001.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops's Effort to Address Climate Change
For the past three years, the Domestic and International Policy Committees have studied the issue and met with science and policy experts. Currently, the Committees are developing a draft of a possible statement for consideration by the full body of bishops. This effort has also been reviewed by the bishops' Doctrine and Science and Human Values Committees.