With the recent release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, more attention is being drawn to the ways in which human society interacts with nature. Climate change has become a particularly contentious issue especially when it comes to whether there are any natural factors involved in these changes or if they are anthropogenic (caused by humans).
Since its inception, science has been an objective study that does not take into account moral judgement. Science can only give us information about what happened and how things work based on empirical evidence collected through unbiased methods. It cannot tell us what we ought or ought not to do given this information because that would be making value judgements outside of its area of expertise. The question of whether there is any legitimacy behind the belief in human-caused climate change has become a highly politicized topic and one that is often fraught with emotion. However, we must remember that science can only tell us what is happening and not what we should do about it.
The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that human activity is causing climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international body made up of the world’s leading climate scientists. They have released multiple reports stating that there is a 95% likelihood that human-caused climate change is real and happening. In contrast, only 37% of Americans believe that global warming is happening, let alone caused by humans (Pew Research Center). This disconnect between the scientific community and the general public when it comes to climate change is due to the overwhelming complexity of the topic. There are many factors involved in climate change and because it can be difficult for a layperson to discern between sound scientific research and propaganda, they often opt for simple explanations that suit their ideologies. However, there is a significant body of research that suggests that anthropogenic climate change is real and the majority of scientists agree on this point. This has not been without its challenges, however.
In 1996, the American Petroleum Institute created a plan on how best to present information about climate change that would benefit their economic interests (Center for Responsive Politics). In addition, since it is an issue with such far-reaching consequences, facing these inconvenient truths about our own actions on a global scale can be discouraging. Much of the resistance to implementing policies surrounding climate change are based on economic factors, especially in developed nations like the United States (Center for Responsive Politics). However, many countries have already begun implementing policies to combat climate change. The Paris Agreement, signed by 192 member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in April 2016 set out goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
Another contentious issue regarding human impact on climate is what exactly will happen if we continue down this path. There are conflicting opinions about how much damage anthropogenic climate change will cause and when these effects could begin being felt. Some predict that it could lead to various environmental catastrophes such as sea-level rise, displacement of species, and increased occurrences of extreme weather events.
Others claim that the effects will not be felt until much later after we have already passed the point of no return. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that the world is already seeing the consequences of climate change in terms of more frequent and intense natural disasters, food insecurity, and loss of biodiversity (IPCC). Despite this, many people continue to doubt the reality of human-caused climate change.
We must remember that science can only tell us what is happening and not what we should do about it. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human activity is causing climate change and it is up to us to decide what to do about it.
We need to face the facts about climate change and begin implementing policies that will help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. It is going to be a difficult journey, but it is one that we must undertake if we want to protect our planet for future generations.