20 August 2015 16:34:21 IST

When religion meets science

With the Pope’s Encyclical and similar calls, the climate change debate has moved beyond scientific and political spheres

Though it can be (and has been) argued that it needn’t be so, religion and science have usually been more or less on opposite sides, with one being more based on faith and emotion and the other exclusively on cold, hard logic.

So, when the two stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the same side of the dais, it seems a bit like the end of the cold war. The reason they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder now is, however, anything but cold — actually, it is warm. Yes, religion and science have joined hands to fight global warming.

Some of you might have read that in June, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic church, with a 1.2-billion strong following, issued what is called an ‘Encyclical’, or a papal letter to all archbishops of the Catholic church. The Encyclical is therefore like the word of God, an edict of the Guru that has to be followed. In the Encyclical, titled Laudato Si, meaning ‘Praise Be to You (God)’, the Pope has practically called emission of greenhouse gases and the consequent global warming a sin.

Marvel of dialogue

The encyclical is a marvel of religion shaking hands with science. In the same breath as it speaks about God and his wonderful creations, it deals with climate science in great depth. Here is a sample:

“The melting in the polar ice-caps and in high-altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon-dioxide. Carbon-dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.”

“Some less numerous species,” the Pontiff notes, “nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.” Note the word ‘equilibrium’. We will come back to it in a minute.

The Encyclical is a huge document, one that will run into tens of pages if printed. The size is indicative of the weight the Pope gives the subject, which in turn reflects the gravity of the situation.

Dilemma for coal producers

Coming barely six months ahead of the major climate negotiations that are to take place in Paris, the Encyclical, which is in effect a religious decree, has far-reaching significance. It must be obeyed, but obeying could be trying too. For example, 90 per cent of the Poland’s people are Catholics, but Poland depends upon coal for energy, like India does. The Encyclical has put coal-producing countries in a fix.

The Pope is not stopping with that. He is due to take his environmental message further — in September, he is due to address a joint session of the US Congress, on climate change.

Two months after the Pope has stirred the collective conscience of 1.2 billion Catholics, and perhaps many more Christians and non-Christians too, Islamic leaders have followed suit. On August 18, from the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul, Muslim leaders from over 20 countries issued a Declaration on Climate Change.

Maintaining equilibrium

The message is pretty much the same: God created the earth and all its wonderful inhabitants and we human beings have no right to destroy them in our pursuit of economic prosperity.

The current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, the Declaration says, and “the earth’s fine equilibrium (mīzān) may soon be lost. Did you notice the word ‘equilibrium’? It’s the same word the Pope used.

This Declaration on Climate Change is perhaps not as binding on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as the Encyclical is on Catholics, but is nonetheless a strong message. It also calls upon the well-to-do, petro-rich countries to give “generous financial and technical” assistance to the poor countries so that they may also benefit “from what is left of the earth’s non-renewable resources.”

So, there you have two of the world’s biggest faiths backing science and directly appealing — telling — close to 3 billion of their followers (nearly half of humanity) to work against climate change.

Respecting Nature

It is not inconceivable that in due course other religious leaders will also do their bit — after all, the concept of respecting Nature is universal.

The climate change discussion has moved from the laboratories of science and political backrooms into the realm of religion. It has thus been mainstreamed, which has wider implications. If someone tells you that chopping a tree is illegal, you might look around, satisfy yourself that nobody is watching, and wield the axe; but if you are told that chopping it is a sin, you will stay your hand.

The mainstreaming of the climate change discourse will find its echo in economy, lifestyles and culture. It has implications, for example, on the kind of jobs you will be doing from the next decade, the kind of cars you will be driving or even the food you might be eating.

Thank God for that. Laudato Si .

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