Why Is the Pope Mad at Me?

Recently, Pope Francis once again stressed the urgency of the “COP-21” climate conference in Paris, saying it would be “catastrophic” not to achieve a treaty (akin to the 1997 Kyoto treaty) to limit emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2).

As reported by the Associated Press:

Francis has made ecological concerns a hallmark of his nearly 3-year-old papacy, issuing a landmark encyclical earlier this year that paired the need to care for the environment with the need to care for humanity's most vulnerable.  Francis argues the two are interconnected since the poor often suffer the most from the effects of global warming, and are largely excluded from today's fossil-fuel based global economy that is heating up the planet. On Thursday, Francis repeated that message but took particular aim at those who reject the science behind global warming.

In support of their account, the AP also provides a direct quote:

"It would be sad, and dare I say even catastrophic, were special interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and interests," Francis said.

The AP article goes on to say:

Francis, who has said global warming is "mainly" man-made, said the world was faced with a stark choice in Paris: either improve or destroy the environment. He said he hoped the Paris talks would approve a "transformational" agreement to fight poverty and protect the environment by developing a new energy system that depends on minimal fossil fuel use.

The standard and conventional interpretation of these remarks is that the Pope regards all those who don’t accept the theory of man-caused global warming as special interests, with the further connotation that they’re greedy robber barons exploiting the poor.

Thanks a bunch, Holy Father!

Scientific Principles

I’m not sure how I got dumped into the category of bad guys and special interests, but I do know why I reject that accusation, along with rejecting the climate alarmism of the clan gathered in Paris: it was my Catholic education, from 5th through 12th grades, that taught me to respect science, that science is God’s creation, and that science is a pathway to discovering truth.  Moreover, Catholics are taught that truth can never contradict truth, so genuine science and authentic religious beliefs will not contradict each other.  I learned to appreciate science well enough that I got into MIT, and eight years later, I came out with a Ph.D. in physics.

As a result, I never have to accept an argument that begins with “I’m not a scientist, but…” and then goes on to recite some popular fluff handed out by celebrities or talking heads.  I can think for myself, I can read data from a graph, I know the meaning of the words “logarithmic” and “causal” and “hypothesis.”  Most of all, I appreciate the difference between data and theory, and in science, it is always the case that data trumps theory.  Science is based on observations, on collected data, and the role of theory is simply to understand and explain the data.

Every one of us trained in physics in the 20th century learned the famous words of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman about theory:  

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is... If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

The computer models that predict doom and gloom for the earth because of CO2 are wrong, because they disagree with what we observe.  They can’t even reproduce the past, and they should never be trusted to predict the future.  Having done a fair amount of computer modeling myself, I think I know why: in any complex computer model, you always wind up having to guess at something, hopefully a minor feature of the model…but that guess can come back to bite you later on.  The way clouds are handled in the General Circulation Models (GCMs) is one such example.  Clouds are parameterized, meaning averaged over all their unknown and complicated features.

Anyone with a high school education in chemistry and physics can grasp why models are so inadequate.  In high school, we learn that there is a heat of vaporization when liquid water turns to steam.  We learn that heat is transported by three mechanisms: conduction, convection and radiation.  We learn that radiation can be ultraviolet, visible, infrared, microwave, etc.  On the globe, heat moves from the tropics toward the poles.  None of these is a difficult concept.  Therefore, when we find out that a computer model of the climate is not handling one of these correctly, a warning bell should go off.

Incorrect Beliefs

Among environmentalists, the level of belief that is assigned to computer models should be embarrassing, because of the the models failure to match observational data.  However, belief is tied up with emotional factors, and it’s much easier to accept an authoritative pronouncement that begins with “I’m not a scientist, but…”  That’s a pseudo-religion, not a real religion.

When that authoritative figure has the stature of the pope, a huge number of people can be swept in.  With precision, scholars note that papal infallibility does not extend to matters of science, but too few people grasp that distinction, and the pope’s word is taken as Gospel truth.

I don’t really think the pope has it in for me personally, and if we ever met, he probably wouldn’t call me part of the special interests.  (The nearest I ever come to getting a payoff from big oil is when the local Sunoco station knocks off 5 cents a gallon for paying in cash.)  But the pope needs to know that there are millions of folks like me who aren’t buying the prevailing orthodox theory, because it doesn’t match the data.  That’s why we call ourselves scientists.

My perception is that Pope Francis is ill-served by his advisers, who are not scientifically qualified for the high positions they hold.  In particular, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez-Sorondo, who was already chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, was made chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as well.  But he’s not a physical scientist at all.  Only global warming advocates were welcome at the Vatican “Climate Summit” in April 2015.  Sanchez-Sorondo enthusiastically bought the U.N.-IPCC package being sold by Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs, an internationally known promoter of population control.  Subsequently, that viewpoint was expressed in the encyclical Laudato Si.  The pope, meanwhile, was far too busy to examine the science personally and relied on Sanchez-Sorondo and similar advisers, like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who wrote the draft version.

Contrast this with the action of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2007 under Pope Benedict XVI.  At a similar conference about global warming, Cardinal Martino, who headed the PAS, had the good judgment to know what he didn’t know and therefore brought in experts on both sides of the question.  The Vatican received far better input that way.

The incumbent Vatican staff seems to have succumbed to confusing the harmless gas CO2  with “carbon pollution,” which is an error in third-grade science.  Carbon particulates (soot) are obvious in the air in China.  The global environment is being harmed by real pollution, and it needs to be stopped and cleaned up.  However, that’s not going to happen if resources are diverted into chasing CO2, as the Paris conventioneers are doing.

Science and the Church

Over many centuries, the Catholic Church has been a patron and enthusiastic supporter of science, because science and religion really are compatible and support each other.  Long ago, it was said (by St. Augustine) that “the book of nature and the book of Scripture were both written by the same author, and they will not be in conflict when properly read and understood.”  More recently, Pope St. John Paul II said in 1987, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition.  Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

Unfortunately, when asked about the church and science, most people (even most Catholics!) remember only one word: Galileo.  After 400 years, after a Papal apology, after a space probe to Saturn was named for the Jesuit astronomer Cassini, still no other name emerges.  Virtually none of the viewers of the TV show The Big Bang Theory realize that that theory was the achievement of the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître.  To this day, most religious leaders quickly retreat when they hear the word “science.”

Are we at another Galileo moment with global warming today?  Probably not, because the Church will never regain the prestige it held in those days.  Still, it is very awkward for a loyal Catholic with any measure of scientific acumen to watch as Vatican prelates are manipulated by U.N. bureaucrats.

The scientific fact is that if the world’s poor (the developing countries) are denied access to inexpensive energy, they will remain in squalor for the rest of their lives.  When the pope goes to Africa and calls for access to clean water as a basic right, we all agree immediately.  But to deliver that promise, energy is needed.  Today, the major source of inexpensive energy is fossil fuels, and the CO2 they produce is simply plant food, having a negligible effect on global temperature.  Banning such fuels is completely inconsistent with “a preferential option for the poor.”

Thomas Sheahen is vice president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project; the author of the textbook Introduction to High Temperature Superconductivity; the director of the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science & Technology; and a scientist specializing in energy issues, especially industrial energy conservation.  He has worked for various national laboratories, including the National Bureau of Standards, the Argonne National Lab, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.