Thursday, 30 April 2015

Ban Ki-Moon's address to Vatican workshop on climate change: reflections on policy, science and the religions

On Tuesday of this week, the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences co-hosted a workshop entitled Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity. As one of the organisers of the workshop recognised, the workshop engaged the three fields of science, of morality (and therefore of the religions) and of policy.

The General Secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon gave a keynote address to the workshop. Two texts are available, a fuller text at he website of the United Nations and shorter text at the website of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences whose premises hosted the workshop.

From the point of view of science, I think it is fair to say that Ban Ki-moon spoke as if the science on climate change is one single, monolithic body of work:
Together, we must clearly communicate that the science of climate change is deep, sound and not in doubt.
Climate change is occurring – now -- and human activities are the principal cause.
According to this report, however, Martin Rees, a leading UK scientist, did acknowledge elements of uncertainty, or perhaps pluralism, in the science of climate change, though without in any sense advocating a climate change sceptic position. There is a danger that, in discussing the science of climate change as if it is a single entity rather than a phenomenon of multiple dimensions, it becomes an ideology that is imposed rather than a truth that is embraced. [I am no expert on the science of climate change, but it is generally of the nature of science that, even in areas of consensus, there will be different dimensions that make up the whole.]

From the point of view of religion and science, one wonders whether Ban Ki-moon, as a policy maker, reached beyond his competence when he said:
[Climate change] is a moral issue. It is an issue of social justice, human rights and fundamental ethics.
We have a profound responsibility to protect the fragile web of life on this Earth, and to this generation and those that will follow.
That is why it is so important that the world’s faith groups are clear on this issue – and in harmony with science.
Science and religion are not at odds on climate change. Indeed, they are fully aligned.
Whilst one would expect that the exercise of human reason that is the science of climate change does align with the exercise of faith that is religious belief, whether or not there is an alignment in terms of practical measures to respond to climate change - an implication of Ban Ki-moon's statement - is another question altogether. And in any case, the judgement of an alignment in terms of science and faith lies within the competence of scientists and believers, not a policy maker like Ban Ki-moon.

And with my third observation, I may be betraying an over-sensitivity to a philosophical nicety. I think there is only one point in the whole address where Ban Ki-moon refers to the human person, and that is when he quotes Pope Francis:
As His Holiness Pope Francis has said, "We need to see, with the eyes of faith … the link between the natural environment and the dignity of the human person."
 And where he might have made a second reference to the human person, he instead chose to speak of the individual:
The United Nations, too, champions the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.
We share a belief in the inherent dignity of all individuals and the sacred duty to care for and wisely manage our natural capital.
Is the dignity of the "individual" the same thing as the dignity of the "person"?  Is our moral orientation with regard to an "individual" the same as our moral orientation towards a "person"?

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