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Pope Francis is "giving people hope"
NASA scientist and Catholic Climate Covenant ambassador Anthony Strawa knows why we should be concerned about climate change, and why we have hope.
He’s an atmospheric scientist and director of the New Opportunities Center at NASA’s Ames Research Center. He served some thirteen years heading up NASA’s Aerosol and Microphysics Group and is a past associate editor of the Journal of Aerosol Science.
He is also the chair of the Diocese of San Jose’s Catholic Green Initiative and a Climate Ambassador for the US-based Catholic Climate Covenant.
Suffice it to say, Anthony Strawa knows what happens to planet Earth when pollution—particularly particulates—fouls our atmosphere, especially as a result of burning of fossil fuels. He also knows what this means for people of faith—especially for his brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church.
“I felt for a long time that this is really a moral issue,” Strawa told Catholic Ecology last week. “For some time when I talked about climate change, I did so from mostly a scientific perspective, and did not get the response I hoped. But when I started talking about it as more of a theological or moral issue, I seemed to have connected a little more with folks.”
Strawa said that the language of responding to climate impacts as moral issues “is part of who we are” as Catholics. “This is what John Paul II was saying and then later popes, and what the Catholic Climate Covenant is saying.”
Discussing the real-world impacts of burning fossil fuels—on the climate and on human health—is the best way to help people understand the choices we must all make, he said.
“I find that people understand the science at kind of a basic level, but once you start digging into the details their eyes kind of glass over. What really resonates with people is the effects, giving examples of how people are being affected by climate change, and the fact that this ought to be part of our moral makeup—taking care of the environment, caring for other people, and not doing things that are going to harm either of them.”
In his work as an atmospheric scientist, Strawa has spent his career looking at the effects of particulates, like dust and smoke, on the natural processes of planet Earth. This work began on matters related to ozone depletion and then progressed to climate change.
Strawa said that many of the particles that are affecting our climate and human health “are the result of burning fossil fuels” and that of the eight identified important air pollutants classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency, seven are the direct result of burning fossil fuels.
“This has a major impact on health—asthma, heart problems, and so on. So as we add more of these pollutants, these add up to big effects.”
"What really resonates with people is the effects, giving examples of how people are being affected by climate change, and the fact that this ought to be part of our moral makeup"
And this all adds up to big social effects, he said.
“For people who can’t afford air conditioning or that live near pollution sources—young kids and older folks especially—these are the people that are most affected. Studying these effects, I’m more and more aware that these impacts are happening—they’re affecting real people in real ways—and these effects are happening at an accelerated rate—faster than we thought they would.”
This acceleration, he said, “adds to the urgency to respond.”
Strawa cites recent research about ice sheets melting in Greenland and Antarctica at rates faster than expected. Much of this has to do with the differences between how the open ocean and the land reflects light and how much more is reflected by ice sheets. Recent research indicates that previous modeling efforts may have underestimated this difference—which would account for the increase in melting as less reflectivity of the sun’s energy means warmer and warmer water and land.
Strawa worries over the response. He wonders if the nations of the world will do what it takes to reverse these trends. He is troubled that the probability for that happening “is not very high.”
This is why, Strawa said, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is so important.
“The pope is in a unique position,” Strawa said. “He is the pastor of a global flock and that includes people who are experiencing climate change on a daily basis.” Strawa finds it meaningful that Laudato Si’ addresses all people of good will with the message of “integral ecology”—that we’re all part of the universe.
“That we are intimately connected with everything.”
Strawa said that the encyclical has come at a time when its message is needed most.
“In the two decades I’ve been involved in issue of climate change —studying it and talking, and trying to get people involved—I’ve not seen a lot of progress, particularly in the United States. Emissions are up. Temperatures are up. And that can be a little disheartening.
"Then along comes a document like Laudato Si’. And it talks about giving people hope. And that’s an important message.”
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