People of a certain age will remember the iconic 1971 anti-littering commercial featuring Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American who sheds a tear as a passing car throws garbage at his feet. What most people don’t know is that Iron Eyes was actually 100%, good old-fashioned ethnic Italian. Born Espera Oscar de Corti in Louisiana to Sicilian immigrant parents, he changed his name and embarked on a long film career playing Native Americans. He is best remembered, however, for his brief role as the emotional environmentalist.
I thought of old Iron Eyes now that our ethnic-Italian Holy Father is by many accounts jumping into environmental activism with his intention to publish an encyclical on ecology this year. It is widely reported that it will include an affirmation that global warming is real, that it is (at least to some degree) due to human actions, and that we have a some sort of obligation to act. It is further reported that the Vatican desires to prod action during the next UN Climate Change Conference later this year. Are those reports true, or only wishful reporting by climate change advocates? We should know in a few months. I sincerely hope that the reports are false.
My point here is not to debate the issue of global warming (personally, I am agnostic about whether abnormal, long-term warming is occurring, somewhat skeptical if it is that mankind has much to do with it, and deeply skeptical of any computer models looking out 50 or 100 years). Perhaps 100 years from now the Thames will freeze again. This article presents a nice summary of the uncertainties involved by someone who is a believer. What does worry me is even the possibility that the Holy Father will employ the weight of his teaching authority as the Vicar of Christ to affirm (or even imply) that man-made global warming is a fact, and to oblige Catholics to support major “global warming protocols” as a matter of global stewardship.
The interpretation of the science and the modeling are not “facts.” What happens if the Holy Father puts out an encyclical that more or less says that they are? And what if the comment I read from an Evangelical organization, believing that will happen, is correct, that the Catholic Church “has the ethics right and the science wrong?” Catholics are not free to simply reject non-definitive teachings of the Pope. Although a lesser degree of belief is required, we are still supposed to give them a religious submission of mind and will. We don’t have to give the absolute assent of faith, but we are expected to try to understand and accept the teachings. I sincerely hope that in addition to his role as the Servant of the Servants of God, that the Holy Father does not try to assume the role of Global Chief Science Officer on still-controversial issues. If he wants to promote concrete action, there are plenty of indisputable environmental problems (like deadly pollution in China) that need action. Scientific theories are always one data point away from being thrown out. Who knows what they will believe on climate change in 50 years? I knew a quality control expert who used to constantly repeat that “all models are wrong, some are useful.” Wise words for today’s debate. Find one climate change model that predicted the Antarctic ice in 2014 would increase to a satellite-era record of over 20 million square kilometers.
It is no one’s place to lecture the Holy Father on which topics he should write encyclicals. That is his special obligation and burden. My concerns about him diving too specifically into a scientific question are likely exaggerated (being influenced by journalists and bloggers with a climate-change agenda), and are partly based on his well-established tendency to be undisciplined with his remarks (see Spaniard’s recent post). Yet most of those issues seem to be from his unscripted comments. Encyclicals are carefully reviewed before publication, so there will not be any unintentional blunders. And yet, a pesky quote keeps popping into my head from a quite different acting role of the 70’s. “I have a bad feeling about this.”