Prudence and Climate Change: How the Church Can Help Our Response to Climate Science

In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II recognized that “[t]he gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.” At the time he delivered that message, the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was ~350 parts per million (ppm). Since then, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded human history.

Given this alarming trend, a recently-published report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a valuable tool by which persons and communities can better understand and respond to climate change. At the same time, however, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ distinct insight about prudence vis-à-vis climate change should be seen as a necessary supplement to this new report.

IPCC’s New Report: WGII AR5

Last Monday, the IPCC released the Working Group II (WGII) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). This report, published by a working group of the IPCC’s thousands of climate scientists from more than one hundred countries, affirms many of the worst-case expectations regarding the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. For example, the report reiterates the IPCC Working Group I AR5 finding that “It is extremely likely [i.e., known with 95-100% certainty] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the [earth’s] observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Moreover, the report affirms that despite some “uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts,” unmitigated anthropogenic climate change is causing—and will continue to cause—increased heat waves, drought, flooding, wildfires, severe weather events, glacial retreat, and widespread sea level rise.

In addition, the new report states that anthropogenic climate change is leading to food and water stresses, population displacement, adverse health conditions, increased potential for human insecurity and sociopolitical conflicts. In particular, the report notes that these adverse humanitarian consequences of climate change disproportionately impact poor and otherwise vulnerable communities. Given the disparity between historical responsibilities for anthropogenic climate change—i.e., the poor are least responsible for contributing to this phenomenon—the report confirms that, as the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference declares, climate change is “a fundamental problem of global justice.”

In light of the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the report points out that humanity is quickly running out of time to prevent climate change from becoming irreversible. To this end, the report offers several principles for climate change mitigation and adapting efforts, including:

Adaptation planning and implementation can be enhanced through complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments; A first step towards adaptation to future climate change is reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability; Adaptation planning and implementation at all levels of governance are contingent on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions; [ … ] Decision support is most effective when it is sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies; Poor planning, overemphasizing short-term outcomes, or failing to sufficiently anticipate consequences can result in maladaptation; Limited evidence indicates a gap between global adaptation needs and the funds available for adaptation.

The Value of Prudence

Due to its unique scientific insights and thoughtful recommendations regarding mitigation and adaptation, WGII AR5 is an important contribution to the public discourse about anthropogenic climate change. At the same time, there appear to be two critiques that might be leveled against this report. The first is that the document commits Hume’s “is-ought fallacy,” wherein conclusions about what ought to be done are inferred from a particular circumstance that is. For example, someone might accept WGII AR5’s assessment of the climate science, but disagree that persons and communities ought to take particular mitigative or adaptative actions in light of it (e.g., exercise a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable). Additionally, someone might say that any mitigative or adaptative actions are unwarranted without absolute certainty regarding the anthropogenic causes and humanitarian consequences of climate change.

In response to these points, the USCCB’s Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good can provide a sort of bridge between what climate science tells us and the actions which persons and communities ought to take. The Bishops declare:

The virtue of prudence is paramount in addressing climate change…Prudence is intelligence applied to our actions. It allows us to discern what constitutes the common good in a given situation. Prudence requires a deliberate and reflective process that aids in the shaping of the community’s conscience. Prudence not only helps us identify the principles at stake in a given issue, but also moves us to adopt courses of action to protect the common good. Prudence is not, as popularly thought, simply a cautious and safe approach to decisions. Rather, it is a thoughtful, deliberate, and reasoned basis for taking or avoiding action to achieve a moral good.

In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus—even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious—justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind’s well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.

Although the USCCB does not emphasize that prudence requires other moral virtues to perfect a person’s appetites towards good action, the invocation of prudence provides a way for people of faith and goodwill to move from understanding the climate science that exists to the responses that ought to be pursued. Moreover, the virtue of prudence can help environmental advocates respond to claims that there is not enough certainty about the causes and consequences of climate change to undertake mitigation and adaptation initiatives. As such, the virtue of prudence is a distinct contribution that the Catholic Church can—and must—make to supplement WGII AR5 and continue supporting public conversation about anthropogenic climate change.