After Pope Issues Call to Combat Climate Change, Rutgers Scientists Explain Why it Matters

After Pope Issues Call to Combat Climate Change, Rutgers Scientists Explain Why it Matters

Pope Francis called on followers to address the manmade causes of climate change.
Pope Francis issued a much anticipated encyclical Thursday that called on people to change their lifestyles and energy consumption to address the manmade causes of climate change. The document casts the fight against climate change – which disproportionately affects people living in poverty – in moral terms. Rutgers Today asked a few of the university’s noted climate scientists how the pope’s words could alter the global conversation. As deniers of climate change continue to refute an urgent need to reverse alarming environmental shifts, Rutgers scientists are hailing the pope’s message as a pivotal moment that could lead to greater action. Here is what they had to say.    

Jennifer Francis, Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences whose research on the jet stream shows a link between the rapidly warming Arctic and an increase in extreme weather events:

Jennifer Francis
Members of the Catholic faith span political boundaries, so I am hopeful that a statement from the pope will help part the clouds that have obscured the facts about climate change, created public confusion where there should be none, and prevented inaction by our government leaders. When the pope speaks, millions of people listen. I hope his message on climate change will mark a turning point toward action.

One of the reasons often heard for someone denying the fact that humans have changed the climate is that they believe we are too insignificant to have such a widespread influence on the Earth or that God would not let it happen. A statement by the pope affirming that human activities are indeed harming the Earth's oceans, atmosphere, and ecosystem – and that we need to take better care of our one and only planet – may change the minds of those who have used these arguments for inaction.

Benjamin Horton, Department of Marine and Coastal Science and a member of Rutgers’ Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. His research on sea-level rise was included in a webcast of President Barack Obama’s January State of the Union address:

Benjamin Horton
One must consider the importance of the voice of Pope Francis. He is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, or about 1/6th of the world’s population. The encyclical will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and published in five languages. As such every Catholic parish, school and university will teach to it.

I am hoping the encyclical will recast the urgent nature of action on climate change. The impacts from climate change are expected to intensify in the coming decades. If we don't act now, climate change will rapidly alter the lands and waters we all depend upon for survival, leaving our future generations with a very different world. Science may be able to inform policy by forecasting how severe climate change will be. However, when confronting environmental challenges, considerations of fairness, equity, and justice must also inform international agreement to combat climate change. As we approach election year, the papal encyclical will make it much harder for politicians to deny the existence of climate change. The pope will cast climate change as the moral cause of our times.

Robert Kopp, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, a lead author of “Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus" (forthcoming this summer from Columbia University Press). This report provided the technical analysis underlying the Risky Business Project organized by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and philanthropist Tom Steyer.

Robert Kopp
We often think about climate change as an economic issue, and it is. But as the pope's encyclical highlights, climate change is also a profoundly ethical challenge. In part, it's a matter of equity. The benefits of fossil fuels have accrued primarily to the world's rich, while the risks have fallen disproportionately on the poor. Moreover, burning fossil fuels imposes an increasing "climate debt" on future generations, who have no direct voice today – an imposition that we shakily justify by assuming that our descendants will be better able to clean up our mess than we are able to avoid making it.

Many of the challenges of dealing with climate change arise from the "short-termism" that dominates our economic and political systems. By contrast, the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church has a longer term view. With its focus on both social justice and the long term, as well as a network of followers that spans all the countries of the world, the Church brings an important perspective to tackling climate change.

– Andrea Alexander


For media inquiries contact Andrea Alexander at 848-932-0556 or aalexander@ucm.rutgers.edu