Industry along the Houston Ship Channel

By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

Pope Francis’ call to moral action against climate change this week will find one perhaps surprising group already in growing agreement with his key point that “the bulk of global warming” is being caused by people’s use of fossil fuels and other polluting activities.

According to a recent Rice University poll, nearly six in 10 residents of Houston and other parts of Harris County now see human fingerprints on climate change – a sizable increase in just a few years.

That finding may startle some, since the city famously prides itself as the capital of the oil industry and many industry leaders haven’t historically been very enthusiastic about appeals to reduce consumption of their products to protect the climate.

Nonetheless, the 2015 edition of Rice’s Kinder Houston Area Survey, an annual poll of Harris County residents’ attitudes about various public issues, found a “significant” increase since 2011 in the percentage who mainly attribute higher temperatures to human activities, as opposed to natural climate variability.

With much advance media attention, excitement on the part of climate-action advocates and preemptive grumbling by climate-action opponents, the pope has been preparing to issue a major public pronouncement on Thursday, outlining a morality-based case for strong steps against climate change.

A draft of the papal encyclical was leaked to an Italian magazine and posted on its website this week. Resulting coverage by the world press confirmed the expectation that Francis’ climate message would strongly support the international scientific community’s nearly universal conclusion that the global warming trend driving climate change is mainly human-caused. Some oil and other fossil-fuel interests and their allies have worked hard to downplay and cast doubt on that finding for years.

The Washington Post’s article about the leaked encyclical draft began with this passage:

A draft of a major environmental document by Pope Francis says “the bulk of global warming” is caused by human activity and calls on people — especially the world’s rich — to take steps to mitigate the damage by reducing consumption and reliance on fossil fuels.

In words likely to anger some of his conservative critics, the pope backs the science of climate change, saying “plenty of scientific studies point out that the last decades of global warming have been mostly caused by the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) especially generated by human action.”

“The poor and the Earth are shouting,” reads the draft of the encyclical, the first of its kind dedicated to the environment.

Texas Climate News asked Stephen Klineberg – a Rice sociology professor who launched the Houston Area Survey in 1982 and was the founding director of the university’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which now conducts it – to comment on whether survey findings reflect on the effectiveness of morality-oriented appeals for climate action, such as the pope’s.

His emailed response:

Here are two quick thoughts:

(1) We developed a module of questions focused on environmental issues in this year’s survey. With regard to global warming, the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey, reaching successive representative samples of Harris County residents, has asked two alternating questions over the years. There’s been no change in the perceived seriousness of global warming, but a significant change in the recognition of its human origins. To wit:

(a) “How serious a problem would you say is the ‘greenhouse effect,’ or the threat of global warming? Would you say: very serious, somewhat serious, or not very serious?” Concern hasn’t changed in recent years: Percentage saying “very serious”: 39 percent (2010), 42 percent (2012), 40 percent (2014).

(b) “What do you believe is the primary cause of the high global temperatures we have experienced in recent years? Are they mainly caused by human activities, or are they mainly caused by normal climate cycles?” Here, the change in recent years is significant: Percentage saying “human activities”: 48 percent (2011), 54 percent (2013), 58 percent (2015).

(2) We haven’t asked in the surveys about the underlying moral issues, but of course they’re critical, since we’re necessarily talking about taking difficult actions today to stop behaving on the basis of our short-term interests in order to mitigate the long-term effects on others (the poor and vulnerable today, and future generations tomorrow).

I’m reminded of an early statement by [economist] Herman Daly: “A sustainable society will make fewer demands on our natural resources, but greater demands on our moral resources.”

And that oft-cited aphorism: “We have not inherited the earth from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children.”

These are indeed intrinsically moral issues, and the pope is right in speaking of them in this way.

The pope’s position on human causation of global warming is firmly grounded in the published scientific literature, according to a new review by the National Physical Sciences Consortium, a partnership between government agencies and laboratories, industry, and higher education. The review, MSNBC reported this week, found that only five of more than 24,000 peer-reviewed papers published on the subject in 2013 and 2014 “reject the reality of rising temperatures or the fact that human emissions are the cause.”

Jeb Bush, a just-announced candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and a Catholic, commented on the leaked draft of the pope’s climate encyclical in a way that suggested he regards climate change more as an economic and political issue than a moral and religious matter. As quoted by the New York Times, the former Florida governor told a New Hampshire audience:

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. And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.

Bush previously criticized people who say scientists have definitively determined that recent global warming is mainly human-caused: “I don’t think the science is clear of what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. For the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.”

Image credit: Louis Vest /Flickr. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license