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Our environmental challenge

Posted: May 13, 2012 - 12:08am

Here in Juneau we live surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The majesty and beauty of the Mendenhall Glacier never ceases to impress me and I have been fortunate to view some of the other glaciers in Southeast Alaska. Just recently I had the opportunity to speak to a longtime Juneau resident who expressed her amazement at how the Mendenhall Glacier has receded over recent years.

The glaciers and the changes taking place reminded me that just a year ago the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science published its report on the causes and consequences of the retreat of mountain glaciers and the impact of climate change on the natural environment and human society.

A working group of internationally renowned glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists and other scientists came together at the Vatican for two days in April 2011 to present scientific papers on the worldwide phenomenon of melting mountain glaciers and to make recommendations regarding the risks and threats of climate change.

The report noted that the widespread loss of glaciers, ice and snow on the mountains is taking place on a global scale at a rapid rate which provides some of the clearest evidence available for a change in the climate system. The major causes appear to be rising temperatures because of greenhouse gases combined with large-scale emissions of dark soot particles and dust that cover glaciers and icefields which then absorb rather than reflect sunlight.

The Vatican working group made the following recommendations:

• Immediately reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide by employing renewal energy resources, addressing deforestation and increasing reforestation and employing technologies that “draw down excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

• Cut heat-absorbing pollutants like soot, methane and hydroflourocarbons by 50 percent.

• Adopt international policies to help countries to assess and adapt to the environmental and social impacts that climate change will bring.

If what the overwhelming majority of responsible scientists predict about climate change is correct, the possible consequences are grave within the near and long term. In the near future, rising sea levels threaten vulnerable island communities in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Long term, the accelerating breakup and melting of glaciers and icesheets in Antarctica and Greenland and the loss of the summer icepack in the Arctic Ocean means rising sea levels that by the end of the century will threaten coastal cities. The acidification of the oceans due to excessive carbon dioxide threatens to disrupt the aquatic food chain and the destruction of acid sensitive species such as reef corals and the plants and animals that depend on them.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2010 message for the World Day of Peace, “There is a very close connection between respect for the human being and the safeguarding of creation. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others.”

Making the changes necessary to turn around climate change before it is too late is not simply a scientific or political question but a moral and spiritual one. We are not the masters but the stewards of God’s creation and have a responsibility before God and to future generations to do what we can to reduce and eventually reverse the impact on the environment caused by the burning of fossil fuels that power our cars, trucks, airplanes and much of our economy.

In August of 2013 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is sending a delegation of bishops and experts from the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change will be coming to Alaska to learn for themselves some of the ways in which climate change has affected the Alaskan environment and the people of Alaska, especially in the rural areas.

Their visit, hosted by the Archbishop of Anchorage, Roger L. Schwietz, Fairbanks’ Bishop Donald Kettler and me, will begin with a symposium in Anchorage made up of church leaders, Alaskan scientists and academics, and Alaska Native elders. The USCCB delegation will then go to visit villages in western Alaska, where they will meet with the people most directly affected by the environmental changes brought about by global warming. On their return to Anchorage, the bishops will conclude the symposium with their own personal reflections on what they have witnessed.

As important as this visit is, we can begin to take action now. With the full support of the nation’s Catholic bishops, all across our country, Catholics are taking the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor. The St. Francis Pledge is a promise and a commitment by Catholic individuals, families, parishes, organizations and institutions to live our faith by protecting God’s creation and advocating on behalf of people in poverty who face the harshest impacts of global climate change. For more information about the St. Francis Pledge please go to: www.catholicclimatecovenant.org.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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