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Health, Science, Environment

St. Louisan Peter Raven advised pope during development of climate change encyclical

Peter Raven at work in China
Provided by the Missouri Botanical Garden

Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter Raven, is one of the minds behind the latest papal letter from Pope Francis. He issued the sweeping encyclical Thursday that calls for immediate societal changes to preserve the environment.  

The 180-page document (when translated to English) appeals to the nations of the world to address climate change as a matter of social justice.  It already made waves when passages were leaked online last week. The pope’s message to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics is clear: Mankind has created — and continues to cause — irreversible damage to the planet, and that damage disproportionately affects people who live in poverty.

Raven, a botanist, is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a nondenominational group of scientists who have advised the Vatican on scientific and technological matters since 1936.

“I remember arguing about these words,” Raven chuckled as he flipped through a copy of the Academy’s latest report: “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement of the Problem and the Demand for Transformative Solutions.”  

St. Louis Public Radio's Durrie Bouscaren interviewed Raven about the encyclical. Here are some key take-aways:

On changes that are expected in this century:

“In the next 40 years or so, the climate of Illinois is going to be like the climate of Alabama at the present time. That is going to have hugely serious effects on agriculture and agricultural productivity worldwide, in a world where 850 million of our 7.3 billion people are already living in relative poverty. And where [many people’s] brains and bodies have not developed right because of a lack of food, and so they’re seriously malnourished. We live in a world that’s very rough right now, and with 7.3 billion people growing at a net of 220 thousand a day, it’s going to get worse. It’s very important that we come together and decide what to do about it.”

On the significance of the pope taking such a strong stance on the environment:

“The pope is so widely accepted as a world leader in these areas that I can only hope that his words will help to accelerate the negotiations about climate, about discharge of more greenhouse gases, and put a new level of serious debate into the discussion. 

“The significance of a figure like the pope making the statement is not that he’s verifying the science or agreeing with the science, that’s not even a discussion. The significance of the pope making the statement is that he’s calling attention to our need to act with these problems to overcome our selfish, short term goals and our short term gains and get on with it.

“You know, my father used to have a cartoon on his wall which showed two businessmen rushing out of a building, and one is saying to the other, ‘I’m working so hard I’m killing myself, but I’m earning so much I can afford it.’ That’s kind of where the world is right now. Those who pretend that runaway economic growth can be sustainable, and that we don’t have to take a serious look at what we’re doing, are simply not facing the facts of a finite planet in the way that they should.

“But let me bring out that the encyclical is far broader than climate change, even though that’s what’s being highlighted now because of what’s going on with these international negotiations. It [deals with] creation, with biodiversity, with ecosystems, with communities, with the functioning of the world, with debris, with toxic pollution, with many other problems, all of which we have to deal with at one level or another if we want to win sustainability for those who come after us.

On the encyclical’s potential to galvanize change:

“People are not actually going to change their lifestyles because of the fate of the polar bear. They’re not actually going to change their lifestyles because they just read a page of statistics, or because I said agriculture is changing. We’re all much too preoccupied with our day-to-day lives to do that. But if we begin to feel a moral responsibility for creation — this wonderful, living world that supports us, sustains our atmosphere, recycles our water, preserves our topsoil and teems with tens of millions of organisms that are there and make system on which we depend utterly — if people can really begin to focus on that, if there can be a moral basis for change, maybe we can begin to get somewhere.”

For more health and science news from St. Louis, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

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