The pontiff later denounces past failures to enact bolder environmental policies. “The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected,” he writes. -- Francis X. Rocca, Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2015
Wall Street Journal
Pope Blames Markets for Environment’s Ills
Pontiff condemns global warming as outgrowth of global consumerism
Pope Francis said human activity is the cause of climate change, which threatens the poor and future generations.
Francis X. Rocca
ROME— Pope Francis in his much-awaited encyclical on the environment offered a broad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy, accusing it of plundering the Earth at the expense of the poor and of future generations.
In passionate language, the pontiff attributed global warming to human activity, blamed special interests for holding back policy responses and said the global North owes the South “an ecological debt.”
The 183-page document, which Pope Francis addresses to “every person living on this planet,” includes pointed critiques of globalization and consumerism, which he says lead to environmental degradation.
“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he writes.
The encyclical’s severe language stirred immediate controversy, signaling the weight the pontiff’s stance could have on the pitched debate over how to respond to climate change.
“Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain,” he writes. “As a result, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of the deified market, which become the only rule.”
The Vatican published the document, titled “Laudato Si” (“Be praised”), on Thursday. The official release came three days after the online publication of a leaked version by an Italian magazine.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, had described the leaked Italian text as a draft, but the final document, published in eight languages, differed only in minor ways, while the pope’s main points were identical. An encyclical is considered one of the most authoritative forms of papal writing.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis wades into the debate over the cause of global warming, lending high-profile support to those who attribute it to human activity.
A “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climactic system,” contributing to a “constant rise in the sea level” and an “increase of extreme weather events,” he writes.
“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” he adds.
While acknowledging natural causes for climate change, including volcanic activity and the solar cycle, Pope Francis writes that a “number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
The pontiff goes on to argue that there is “an urgent need” for policies to drastically cut the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases and promote the switch to renewable sources of energy.
But the pope goes further by weaving his signature theme of economic justice and his vehement criticism of capitalism throughout the entire encyclical.
The document alternates between passages of almost apocalyptic moralizing and more-technical language, including practical proposals for alleviating environmental problems.
Pope Francis opens the encyclical, which includes extensive sections on the theology of creation, with a lament for man’s sins against “Mother Earth”: “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”
The pontiff later denounces past failures to enact bolder environmental policies. “The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected,” he writes.
The Argentina-born pontiff, the first in history to hail from the Southern Hemisphere, writes that the North owes the South en ecological debt because “developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”
The encyclical addresses other environmental problems besides climate change, including the “water poverty” of Africa and other poor regions where clean drinking water is scarce. The pope even advocates more environmentally conscious lifestyles, including reduced use of plastic, paper and water; separating trash; carpooling and turning off lights.
“We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world,” he writes.
The encyclical had been of enormous advance interest, especially after Pope Francis said he hoped it would make a contribution to an international environmental summit this autumn. Several oil companies offered their input to the Vatican office tasked with drafting the document.
Samuel Gregg, a Catholic who serves as director of research for the Acton Institute, a conservative ecumenical think tank that advocates for a free market, took exception to the pope’s economic premises, saying Pope Francis has “significant blind spots” with regard to market economies.
“When you read through the text, you find the free market, and finance in particular, is identified more or less as responsible for many environmental problems,” Dr. Gregg said. “It’s almost a subterranean theme of the encyclical.…In many respects, it’s a caricature of market economies.”
Pope Francis is likely to repeat his arguments about inequality and environmental degradation when he addresses a United Nations special summit on sustainable development in September in New York. He could also raise those topics earlier that week, in a scheduled speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, where the issue of climate change is highly controversial along partisan lines.
U.S. politicians were already weighing in even before the official version of the encyclical was published. Commenting on the draft leaked this week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who is a Catholic, said, “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
Asked about Mr. Bush’s remark, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who is president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, replied that since “politics and economics have moral content,” politicians shouldn’t see religious pronouncements on those subjects as a burden.
Some Democrats instead evoked the pope’s position. “He is displaying the moral leadership that will be necessary in all sectors,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “Democrats, Republicans, people across the planet are starting to understand the magnitude of the climate challenge.”
Many of the world’s biggest oil companies have also been increasingly vocal on the issue of climate change, though they had no immediate response to the pope’s comments.
However, some industry groups were quick to play down the pope’s words. “To say that we need to get fossil fuels out of the mix, I don’t think is realistic,” said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive of the World Coal Association, in response to the pope’s call to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. “We need to make sure that we use those fossil fuels in the cleanest way possible.”
New NASA data show how the world is running out of water
Todd C. Frankel
The world’s largest underground aquifers – a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — are being depleted at alarming rates, according to new NASA satellite data that provides the most detailed picture yet of vital water reserves hidden under the Earth’s surface.
Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers — in locations from India and China to the United States and France — have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study period, researchers announced Tuesday. Thirteen aquifers declined at rates that put them into the most troubled category. The researchers said this indicated a long-term problem that’s likely to worsen as reliance on aquifers grows.
Scientists had long suspected that humans were taxing the world’s underground water supply, but the NASA data was the first detailed assessment to demonstrate that major aquifers were indeed struggling to keep pace with demands from agriculture, growing populations, and industries such as mining.
“The situation is quite critical,” said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and principal investigator of the University of California Irvine-led studies.
Underground aquifers supply 35 percent of the water used by humans worldwide. Demand is even greater in times of drought. Rain-starved California is currently tapping aquifers for 60 percent of its water use as its rivers and above-ground reservoirs dry up, a steep increase from the usual 40 percent. Some expect water from aquifers will account for virtually every drop of the state’s fresh water supply by year end.
The aquifers under the most stress are in poor, densely populated regions, such as northwest India, Pakistan and North Africa, where alternatives are limited and water shortages could quickly lead to instability.
The researchers used NASA’s GRACE satellites to take precise measurements of the world’s groundwater aquifers. The satellites detected subtle changes in the Earth’s gravitational pull, noting where the heavier weight of water exerted a greater pull on the orbiting spacecraft. Slight changes in aquifer water levels were charted over a decade, from 2003 to 2013.
“This has really been our first chance to see how these large reservoirs change over time,” said Gordon Grant, a research hydrologist at Oregon State University, who was not involved in the studies.
But the NASA satellites could not measure the total capacity of the aquifers. The size of these tucked-away water supplies remains something of a mystery. Still, the satellite data indicated that some aquifers may be much smaller than previously believed, and most estimates of aquifer reserves have “uncertainty ranges across orders of magnitude,” according to the research.
Aquifers can take thousands of years to fill up and only slowly recharge with water from snowmelt and rains. Now, as drilling for water has taken off across the globe, the hidden water reservoirs are being stressed.
“The water table is dropping all over the world,” Famiglietti said. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
The health of the world’s aquifers varied widely, mostly dependent on how they were used. In Australia, for example, the Canning Basin in the country’s western end had the third-highest rate of depletion in the world. But the Great Artesian Basin to the east was among the healthiest.
The difference, the studies found, is likely attributable to heavy gold and iron ore mining and oil and gas exploration near the Canning Basin. Those are water-intensive activities.
The world’s most stressed aquifer — defined as suffering rapid depletion with little or no sign of recharging — was the Arabian Aquifer, a water source used by more than 60 million people. That was followed by the Indus Basin in India and Pakistan, then the Murzuk-Djado Basin in Libya and Niger.
California’s Central Valley Aquifer was the most troubled in the United States. It is being drained to irrigate farm fields, where drought has led to an explosion in the number of water wells being drilled. California only last year passed its first extensive groundwater regulations. But the new law could take two decades to take full effect.
Also running a negative balance was the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains Aquifer, which stretches across the southeast coast and Florida. But three other aquifers in the middle of the country appeared to be in relatively good shape.
Some groundwater filters back down to aquifers, such as with field irrigation. But most of it is lost to evaporation or ends up being deposited in oceans, making it harder to use. A 2012 study by Japanese researchers attributed up to 40 percent of the observed sea-level rise in recent decades to groundwater that had been pumped out, used by humans and ended up in the ocean.
Famiglietti said problems with groundwater are exacerbated by global warming, which has caused the regions closest to the equator to get drier and more extreme latitudes to experience wetter and heavier rains. A self-reinforcing cycle begins. People living in mid-range latitudes not only pump more water from aquifers to contend with drier conditions, but that water — once removed from the ground — also then evaporates and gets recirculated to areas far north and south.
The studies were published Tuesday in the Water Resources Research journal.
Famiglietti said he hoped the findings would spur discussion and further research into how much groundwater is left.
“We need to get our heads together on how we manage groundwater,” he said, “because we’re running out of it.”