Solomon Islands is among ten countries around the world which have made marked progress in their ability to cope with climate change.

Originally published by Radio New Zealand International at

The University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index uses 46 indicators to measure climate change risks to 180 countries.

It also measures how ready countries are to accept investment that could help them cope with more extreme weather and rising seas.

Solomon Islands stands alongside Malaysia, Rwanda, the Philippines, Poland and several other countries which have improved significantly in their ability to cope.

The researchers attributed their success to economic gains and development improvements such as boosting access to reliable drinking water and sanitation, strengthening agriculture, and lowering slum populations and child malnutrition.

ND-GAIN's managing director, Joyce Coffee, says the index is intended to help leaders prioritise investments to help countries adapt better, and ensure the most vulnerable are not forgotten.

Syria, Libya and Yemen are among countries whose standing has deteriorated the most.

The index found contributing factors to their falling scores are increases in political instability, violence, corruption and poor rule of law.

The Vicious Cycle Emerging Between War and Severe Weather Will Be Hard To Stop

Originally published by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan at

The world has changed a lot in the past 12 months, with political conflict focusing the world on immediate crises, not the distant future. But a group of scientists are are showing how these conflicts will affect our ability to adapt to climate change down the road–and our ability to survive as a human race.

The Global Adaptation Index is a Notre Dame-based project that ranks every country in the world by how prepared it is for the stresses of climate change: food insecurity, drought, health crises, war, flooding, extreme storms, poverty, and more. The index has been around for years–it is a comprehensive statistical look at how quickly a country can adapt to change (we covered it last year, looking at the countries most likely to bewiped out by these changes).

But this week, the scientists behind GAIN introduced their most recent rankings, showing how 2014 dramatically shifted the preparedness of many countries. The big takeaway? Countries that have seen conflict over the past year slipped dramatically. Syria and Libya top the list of countries that fell through the ranks–while Yemen, a country that’s still covering from a battering of unprecedented cyclones, also slipped dramatically:

The Vicious Cycle Emerging Between War and Severe Weather Will Be Hard To Stop

“Several countries with the biggest losses on ND-GAIN Country Index are also very fragile, suggesting a connection between climate and conflict,” said Ian Noble, and advisor on the index. That’s because the index doesn’t just rank how at-risk a country is for climate change: It ranks how well it could respond to changes, based on metrics about its economic and political stability, government corruption, and infrastructure.

The ranking gives us two fields: Vulnerability and readiness. For example,take Syria. Syria’s readiness plummeted because neither the government nor the economy is prepared to protect the country from climate change. But what’s really important here is the country’s vulnerability listing. According to the GAIN index, Syria’s biggest vulnerability is water access. The conflict in Syria actually has its roots in the worst drought in its history, which contributed to the conflict.

“[T]he extreme dryness, combined with other factors, including misguided agricultural and water-use policies of the Syrian government, caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas,” the New York Times reported this year. “This in turn added to social stresses that eventually resulted in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.”

The Vicious Cycle Emerging Between War and Severe Weather Will Be Hard To Stop

But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill drought: A study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March showed a causal relationship between the warming climate and the extreme conditions, concluding that greenhouse gas emissions directly spurred warmer temperatures and less rainfall in the region.

As the GAIN index illustrates, conflicts spreading across larger regions further lessens countries’ abilities to respond to the climate crisis–a vicious cycle of war and climate change. Look no further than Paris, where in a matter of weeks, world leaders will convene for arguably the most important meeting on climate change ever held as the city recovers from the horrifying attacks of Friday, November 13th.

The link between our warming planet and the wars spreading across it has never been more clear. Hopefully, the talks with catalyze a plan to break it–but it’s going to be a long road.

Lead image: Dry land near the giant Dadaab refugee settlement on July 19, 2011 in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

Originally published by Megan Rowling at
A flooded street is pictured after heavy rains caused the closure of several main streets in Libya's capital Tripoli November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Hani Amara

BARCELONA, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syria, Libya and Yemen are among the countries whose ability to withstand climate change shocks and stresses has deteriorated most in the past five years, suggesting conflict makes people more vulnerable to climate impacts, researchers said.

The University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), released on Tuesday, uses 46 indicators to measure climate change risks to 180 countries and how ready they are to accept investment that could help them cope with more extreme weather and rising seas.

The main contributing factors to the falling scores of the three fragile states in the Middle East and North Africa, riven by armed conflict, are increases in political instability, violence, corruption and poor rule of law, according to the index.

"Even without climate change, you're going to see that countries that have done a poor job on their governance or economic systems are a source of refugees, (and) because of conflict, they haven't been able to serve their people, and things are deteriorating there in all different sectors," said Joyce Coffee, ND-GAIN's managing director.

But adding vulnerability to climate change - which affects food and water security, and less directly health and sanitation - appears to indicate "where the real flash points are", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the same period, 10 countries made marked progress in their ability to cope with climate change, the annual index showed.

They are Malaysia, Albania, the Solomon Islands, Guinea, Mongolia, Rwanda, Poland, Russia, the Philippines, Georgia, Laos and Ivory Coast.

The researchers attributed their success to economic gains and development improvements such as boosting access to reliable drinking water and sanitation, strengthening agriculture, and lowering slum populations and child malnutrition.

The ND-GAIN findings imply that investments in climate change adaptation could pay dividends for a country's stability and development, and vice versa, the researchers added.

Issued ahead of a U.N. climate summit in Paris set to agree a new deal to curb climate change, the index is intended to help leaders prioritise investments to help countries adapt better, and ensure the most vulnerable are not forgotten, Coffee said.

"To save lives and improve livelihoods, we must not only prevent the avoidable, but also prepare for the unavoidable changes in climate," she added.


To adapt to those changes, developing countries say they need much more financial assistance from the international community - and will be pushing hard for that at the two-week Paris climate conference which begins on Nov. 30.

Climate adaptation includes measures such as constructing cyclone shelters, raising up homes and building embankments to protect against floods, putting in place early warning systems, and trying different crops and farming techniques.

According to a new report from development charity ActionAid, rich countries provided grants to fund adaptation in developing nations of $3 billion to $5 billion in 2013.

That is very far off the annual $50 billion they should be giving by 2020 if they stick to a pledge to mobilise $100 billion per year by then, and split it between adaptation and actions to reduce planet-warming emissions as developing nations have urged, ActionAid said.

By 2025, at least $150 billion per year will be needed to fund adaptation, the charity said. It described the figure as a conservative estimate based on U.N. figures that likely underestimate the real costs of climate impacts.

The $100 billion goal for 2020 includes not just government grants but also loans and private-sector funding, which ActionAid said should not be counted because they risk exacerbating poor countries' debt, and would fail to reach the communities that most need support.

While the adaptation funding needs may sound large, most donor countries would have to spend less than 0.1 percent of GDP in 2020 and around 0.2 percent by 2025 to meet them - amounts that pale into insignificance alongside defence spending or bank bailouts, the group said.

The report also calculates the amounts rich countries should give based on their historical greenhouse gas emissions and estimates of future adaptation needs in the developing world - what it calls their "fair share".

The United States, for example, should increase its contributions by more than 154 times, from the $0.44 billion it gave in 2013 to $67.5 billion in 2025, ActionAid said.

And climate-summit host France would need to boost climate change grants to developing nations by more than 75 times, from $0.07 billion in 2013 to $5.5 billion in 2025, it added.

"People in poor countries can't just be left alone to face a crisis they did not cause," Brandon Wu, ActionAid's climate finance expert, said in a statement.

"Adequate climate finance will be a key barometer of success for the world's leaders at the climate summit in Paris next month."

Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit


Originally published at and redistributed by &
Countries on the rebound making significant climate adaptation progress

In the lead-up to 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 21), 10 countries have come from behind to make marked progress in their ability to withstand the shocks and stresses of climate change, while five are distinctly less resilient, according to data released Tuesday (Nov. 17) by the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN).

Over the last five years, the 10 countries that have made the biggest jump on the ND-GAIN Country Index to become better climate adapters are Cote d'Ivoire, Laos, Georgia, The Philippines, Russia, Poland, Rwanda, Mongolia, Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

These countries share improvement in common factors that have contributed to the upward movement: primarily their improving economies and improving adaptive capacities, such as increased access to reliable drinking water, improved sanitation, increased agricultural capacity and decreased slum populations and child malnutrition.

On the flip side, a set of countries is heading in the wrong direction. The countries that have deteriorated the most in their ND-GAIN score during the past five years are Libya, Syria, Cuba, Saint Kitts and Yemen.

The contributing factors to these countries' falling scores are primarily increases in corruption, political instability, violence and poor rule of law.

"Interestingly, several countries with the biggest losses on ND-GAIN Country Index are also very fragile, suggesting a connection between climate and conflict," notes ND-GAIN scientific adviser Ian Noble. Comparing ND-GAIN to the Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index, Libya, Syria and Yemen are some of the poorest performers over the past five years on both of these indices. On the other hand, Ukraine is also doing poorly on FSI, but not on ND-GAIN, possibly because the conflict there arose from pressures outside its borders.

The examination of biggest gainers and biggest losers on the ND-GAIN Country Index suggests that investments to increase climate adaptation may pay dividends for a country's stability and development, and vice versa.

The ND-GAIN analysis both reinforces messages in the Pope's recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si', and confirms the interrelationship of climate adaptation with many of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, highlighting the collateral benefits climate action can have on key elements of well-being.

"To save lives and improve livelihoods, we must not only prevent the avoidable, but also prepare for the unavoidable changes in climate," Joyce Coffee, managing director of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, said. "In the lead-up to the Paris Conference of the Parties next month, the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index identifies the world's hotspots so that leaders can prioritize investments that help countries to be more adaptive to global changes."

"The aim behind ND-GAIN's data delivery is to provide information for the common good," said Nitesh Chawla, index director of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. "Free and open source, the ND-GAIN Country Index also has extensive online tools that allow index users to compare asset risks and opportunities."

The ND-GAIN Country Index aims to unlock global adaptation solutions that save lives and improve livelihoods while strengthening market positions in the private sector and policy decisions in the public sector. Measuring not only vulnerability but also the readiness to take on investment, it informs strategic, operational and reputational decisions regarding supply chains, capital projects and community engagements. The index includes 20 years of data across 46 indicators for 180 . ND-GAIN is housed in the Environmental Change Initiative of the University of Notre Dame.

Migrants from the Middle East bound for Europe earlier this month. Fotis Piegas G/Reuters

Posted on The Conversation: We are entering a new era of migration – and not just for people

The world is watching as refugees flood into a Europe unprepared for the new arrivals. Conflict and social unrest due in part to climate stress – including induced food shortages and social conflict – have prompted migrants to search for new homes and new opportunities.

To ecologists, however, this comes as no surprise.

When we look at the history of life on Earth, we see a repeated pattern in the response of living things to environmental change. Plants and animals alike have a remarkable capacity to migrate in response to changing conditions. Over many generations and thousands of years, this leads to wholesale changes in the geographic distribution of species and composition of the world’s ecosystems. Species may adapt to climate change, and sometimes go extinct, but movement is a nearly ubiquitous response.

This observation of past migrations gives us a window into the future, suggesting how life – including human life – may unfold under modern climate change.

Specifically, given the scale of climatic and environmental changes confronting Earth today, we may be confronting an unprecedented era of human migration.

Faster pace of change

As ecologists, we know one thing for sure: when the climate changes, organisms move.

During the last ice age, a time when the world was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit colder, forests dominated Death Valley, California, a place that is now a hot desert. What happened to the trees? They moved. Over many generations, their offspring dispersed to new locations and survived where they found conditions more favorable.

Many millions of years ago, at a time when Earth was much warmer, there were relatives of the alligator living at the poles. Why were they there? Because the climate was suitable for alligators and their offspring.

By moving, a species effectively reduces its exposure to changing conditions: if each generation is able to find suitable climates, then over time they all end up experiencing similar conditions.

The fossil record shows wave after wave of species migration. This process of geographic reconfiguration is disorganized and messy, with strange combinations of organisms living together as they pass through geologic time. (Interestingly, one biological consequence of migration may be the long periods of relatively little evolutionary change that we see in the fossil record: migration reduces evolutionary pressure for species to adapt to changing conditions.)

As dramatic as past episodes of climate change have been, they have generally played out over very long time periods, so the average rates of migration were fairly slow.

The situation today is quite different, as the rate of change in the next century is projected to be at least 10 times the rate observed at the end of the last ice age.

Ecologists estimate that some species confronting climate change today will need to move many kilometers per year, on average, to keep pace with warming projected under the current “business-as-usual” emissions trajectory, which would result in 4-8 degrees Celsius average temperature increase this century. For some species, however, migrations can be very different: they may move shorter distances but move, for example, from the base to the top of mountains or from coastal to inland locations.

Human dependence on other species

Will people move these long distances, over a short period of time, too?

The social and technological innovations of human society have in many ways decoupled our lives from direct dependence on local climate, at least in developed societies. We regulate the environment we inhabit in our houses and cars, and move food and water vast distances from where it is available or can be produced in abundance to where it is needed.

Yet the other species we depend on – especially for food and fiber – have their own climate requirements.

Changing climates are rapidly prompting farmers and foresters to plant different species or cultivars, to move the production of particular crops toward cooler or moister locations, and to place increased pressures on limited supplies of irrigation water.

Where agriculture becomes difficult, or even impossible, or when other climatic limits are passed, we people may take to the road as well.


A wildlife overpass in British Columbia. Natural resource managers are preparing for species migration in different ways, such as creating refuges and wildlife corridors. 

In the fossil record, migration is the dominant signal of response to a climate, but today technology and socioeconomic innovation give us many other ways to adapt in place. And, at the same time, global markets for goods free us, to an extent, from dependence on local conditions.

On the other hand, the technologies and global markets that allow us to adapt to changing conditions also facilitate human movement, and link our economies, making us all vulnerable to climate impacts felt around the world.

There is no doubt that climate change is one factor exacerbating social and political turmoil across the globe, and these effects may intensify quickly in coming years and decades. Human migrations – just like the responses of nonhuman creatures – will be hard to predict, chaotic and haphazard. Yet, if we heed the lessons from ecology and the fossil record, we would do well to prepare for the growing numbers and needs of climate refugees, whether fleeing sea level rise, heat waves, drought and famine, and the social conflicts all of these can cause.

Dealing with geographic change

Ecologists charged with managing nonhuman, natural resources are planning for species migrations in many ways, including:

  • identifying regions with the fastest climatic shifts where we expect the greatest migration

  • planning parks and preserves to serve as recipients for migrating species, and preserving the corridors that allow plants and animals to move through heavily fragmented urban and agricultural landscapes

  • looking to regions with more stable climates to serve as refugia where communities and ecosystems may be naturally resilient. In some cases, they are looking to facilitate migration because we know that moving allows species to avoid the trap of being stuck in a degrading climate.


The analogy is imperfect, but we must plan for migration of human populations as well. That means seeking to identify and enhance resilient communities that can support vibrant communities in the face of rapid environmental and social change. And we must accommodate people who seek places that are better today and more suitable in the future.

If the biological past foretells the future, political leaders must prepare for an era of profound geographic change, a modern era of migration.

Op-Ed by U.S. Rep. Patrick E. Murphy (FL-18) - View original piece

On Thursday, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress, and on the minds of many were his inspirational words and environmental call to action from his most recent encyclical, Laudato Si. I was inspired by his message of working toward justice for the less fortunate by sharing in the care of the earth, which we all call home.

As a native Floridian, born and raised in the Florida Keys and living along South Florida’s beaches my entire life, the threats to our coastline and our community because of climate change are not only deeply troubling, but personal.

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Flood Exposure Mappershows that one foot of sea level rise threatens the majority of our local coastline, and that many of these areas most vulnerable to climate change are also home to our most vulnerable community members, such as the elderly and the poor.

Even more troubling is that Florida’s predicament is not an isolated situation. Across the world, this same story is unfolding. The University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Index is a metric that summarize the vulnerability to climate change and the adaptation potential of every country. The index clearly shows that the poorest countries of the world are some of the hardest-hit but the least able to adapt to rising sea levels.

The worst effects of climate change are occurring in communities that don’t have the resources to adequately adapt, while those responsible for the greenhouse gas pollution that drives climate change continue to damage the environment, largely without consequence. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis emphasizes this point: “The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes.”

I agree that we must take action to protect our environment to improve the lives of everyone in our global community, particularly the most vulnerable among us. As a public servant, I truly believe that we have a responsibility to act on climate change.

Furthermore, I agree that this is something we can accomplish. That is why, for example, I support the President’s Climate Change Action Plan, and am actively supportive of restoring our environment along with helping our communities protect against ongoing sea-level rise.

As we reflect on Pope Francis’ visit and take his message of action to heart, I hope that we will work toward solutions for climate change that reduce the impacts on vulnerable communities, alleviate suffering, and enable all people to participate in this process of making our common home a better place to live.

Congressman Patrick E. Murphy represents the Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast in Congress. He serves on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Additionally, he is the co-founder and co-chairman of the bipartisan United Solutions Caucus and a member of the Congressional Safe Climate Caucus.


AECOM Wins 2015 ND-GAIN Corporate Adaptation Prize for UN Disaster Resilient Scorecard

Published on Business WireMarket Watch & PreventionWeb

LOS ANGELES, Sep 23, 2015 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- AECOM has won the 2015 ND-GAIN Corporate Adaptation Prize, a coveted award granted by the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index for its Disaster Resilience Scorecard. Developed in concert with IBM for the United Nations (UN), the Disaster Resilience Scorecard helps communities understand, communicate and implement actions to reduce disaster risk and accelerate recovery. The scorecard supports UN efforts to prepare for, respond to and quickly recover from natural disasters by bringing together expertise and resources from the public and private sectors.
ND-GAIN award submissions represented projects in over a dozen countries on topics such as reforestation, water, food, energy and health, which were evaluated for measurable adaptation progress, scalability, market impact and partnerships. Winners are being honored at an event in connection with Climate Week NYC and the UN Sustainability Summit.
“AECOM and IBM are pleased the Disaster Resilience Scorecard received this prestigious award,” said Dale Sands, senior vice president and environment business director, metro and climate adaption services, who is accepting the award for AECOM. “This scorecard is an impactful, user-friendly tool that supports cities and stakeholders with disaster risk reduction and preparedness. With spiraling capital losses resulting from an increasing number of natural disasters, and growing urban populations and infrastructure around the world, it’s critical that we adapt now to the changing climate to help the sustainability and viability of our communities.”
“As a result of climate change, cities and private organizations are increasingly aware of frailties of growing urbanization and global supply chains due to extreme events such as floods, heat waves and hurricanes,” said Peter Williams, CTO of Big Green Innovations at IBM and one of the authors of the Scorecard. “The Disaster Resilience Scorecard strives to decrease climate-related and natural disaster vulnerabilities for cities around the globe. Cities can now systematically assess their strengths and weaknesses — making their local communities smarter and safer."

Posted in the South Bend Tribune: Climate change projects win Notre Dame prizes

SOUTH BEND — Two projects that address climate change in developing countries have won the 2015 Corporate Adaptation Prize, which is awarded by the University of Notre Dame's Global Adaptation Index.

The university announced this year's winners on Thursday.

One of the winning projects is a program in Mozambique that produces starch for craft beer from cassava, and the other is designed to help cities worldwide develop resiliency to disaster. Here are details about the winners:

• AECOM, a global provider of support services in energy and other fields, and technology company IBM, for developing a Disaster Resilience Scorecard designed to help communities understand, communicate and put into effect actions to reduce disaster risk and accelerate recovery from disasters. The scorecard supports the United Nation’s efforts to manage and reduce disasters by bringing together expertise and resources from the public and private sectors.

• DADTCO, a cassava-processing company, for developing a mobile facility for processing fresh cassava close to smallholder farmers instead of transporting the plants to a central factory. Cassava is a tropical plant grown for its starchy roots. The technology provides the opportunity for cassava, a major food crop in Africa, to replace expensive imported cereals and boost the national economy.

The winners will be honored at a Sept. 23 event in connection with Climate Week NYC and the United Nations Sustainability Summit.

ND-GAIN, based at Notre Dame, is a global annual index that ranks more than 175 countries based on their vulnerability to climate change and their readiness to adapt to droughts, superstorms and natural disasters that climate change may cause.

Award submissions represented projects in more than a dozen countries and topics ranged from reforestation, water and food to energy and health.

Originally published by Notre Dame College of Science: 

Corey Robinson pursues his passion during summer internship with ND-GAIN

Corey Robinson

What do football and climate change research have in common? For Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Robinson, the two involve following your passions.

Robinson is a rising senior in the program of liberal studies (PLS) and sustainability minor. He chose this course of study because he really enjoys philosophy and speculative thinking. “Sustainability was a perfect way to combine my love for ethics and philosophy with practical environmental policies,” he said.

Robinson learned about the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN) while exploring topics for his sustainability capstone project. ND-GAIN is the world’s leading index showing which countries are best prepared to deal with the droughts, super-storms, and other natural disasters that climate change can cause. Once he learned more about ND-GAIN’s work, he decided to pursue a summer research internship to explore the index's research more in depth.

Robinson’s project focused on creating a case study on the relationship between climate change, agriculture and deforestation in Brazil. “Brazil is a leading world producer of agriculture products and the country’s total yield is heavily impacted by several factors, including rising temperatures, deforestation, and agricultural technological capacity,” he explained. “Brazil must learn to adapt to agricultural climate change issues or it may forfeit its place in the world’s agricultural economy.”


"Corey sought out an internship at ND-GAIN based on his interest in the poor in emerging economies,” said Joyce Coffee, managing director of ND-GAIN and Robinson’s research advisor.  “He brought fresh thinking to our mission and projects, identifying the places most vulnerable to extreme weather and changing climate, and identifying real-world solutions that can prevent these changes from becoming disasters."

Robinson will also incorporate his work with ND-GAIN into his senior thesis for PLS which will apply John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism to environmental policy-making and will use deforestation in Brazil as a specific case study.  

When asked about his experience, Robinson said, “I thought the whole experience was extremely valuable because I was able to see a new industry and learn a wide range of skills. I honed my writing skills, researched minuscule data points across a wide variety of sources, and built effective models. I also learned that I really enjoy the environmental NGO field.”

Robinson’s coursework and research experience have also influenced his career plans after he graduates from Notre Dame. "I hope to pursue a master's degree in public policy or go to law school," he said. "My dream is to become an environmental policy maker or an environmental lawyer."


Faith and science can find common ground

Pope Francis has found a meeting place for those with extreme religious and environmentalist stances

Essay by David Lodge, Director, Notre Dame Environmental Change Initative 
In recent weeks, we have learned that Pope Francis enticed Cuban President Raúl Castro to consider a return to Catholicism, and has ended a dispute involving US nuns that will allow them to return to serving the poor free from the suspicion of heresy.
Perhaps most surprisingly, at least to this Protestant ecologist embedded for 30 years in a Roman Catholic university, the Pope has suggested that humans should not breed “like rabbits”, despite his church’s continued prohibition of birth control.
Pope Francis is clearly a man on a mission to shake things up. Could the world’s leading Catholic help to bridge the divide between science and the Protestant views that dominate the religious ‘anti-science’ movement? I think that he could.
In his recent encyclical on humans and the environment, Pope Francis described environmental degradation with great scientific accuracy, and he linked it to economic exploitation and the plight of the poor. This is a challenge to many conservative Protestants who believe that humans, because they are made in God’s image, have a divine right to exploit the natural world.
The Pope’s argument is a powerful one, and addresses those with power, especially in the United States. The views of notorious climate-sceptic Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) on the threat of global warming, for example, are underpinned by his strong Protestant conviction that God created natural resources for humans, and that we are arrogant in thinking that we can affect God’s plan for the Earth. By contrast, many environmentalists argue that humankind should protect nature for its intrinsic value, with little apparent regard for the importance of its use for human welfare.
By framing protection of the environment as protecting human welfare, the Pope has linked the interests of groups that are often at odds. He offers some middle ground on which both sides of this polarized debate can meet and work towards a mutually desirable future.
Such a compromise between the extremes of the religious and environmentalist positions could also help to defuse other sources of tension between faith and science. To many people, the two cannot be reconciled — so much so that when I tell people I am a biologist, believe in evolution and work on environmental issues, I am often told that I cannot be a Christian. Sadly, this is the message in many conservative Protestant churches: choose between science and faith.
The same polarization is urged by many prominent popularizers of science and the ‘New Atheists’ — with Richard Dawkins as their figurehead. Is it so surprising, then, that in the United States especially, atheism is over-represented among scientists, and that science–faith polarization is increasingly reflected in political and cultural discourse?
“Is it so surprising that, in the United States especially, atheism is over-represented among scientists?”
For example, nothing in the official teaching of Catholicism opposes evolution. Creationism is a recent Protestant invention, based on extreme, literal interpretations of the first three chapters of the Bible’s book of Genesis. Catholicism relies more on an interpretation of the scriptures that is rooted in a tradition of reason informing faith. Yet when I ask my biology undergraduates whether they feel a conflict between their faith and evolution, about half of every class — 85% of whom are Catholic — say yes.
The students respond in this way because evolution, alongside issues such as climate change, stem cells, abortion and gay marriage, has been conscripted into the culture wars, with science increasingly suffering collateral damage. And as the culture wars have forced people to choose sides, respect for science is now divided along political lines too, with huge influence on policy.
US environmental-protection policies, which began as bipartisan efforts to protect human and environmental health, have become destructively partisan. It was the Republican president Richard Nixon who in 1972 signed the Clean Water Act that brought Lake Erie back from the dead, restoring one of the most economically valuable freshwater fisheries in the world. Nowadays, efforts to improve water and air quality are too often supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans — on the grounds that environmental protection harms human welfare, and that because the world is temporary, long-term protection is unnecessary. They dismiss scientists, who increasingly quantify the great extent to which environmental protection benefits humans, as just another special-interest group.
As a Protestant scientist, I am distressed to see my faith twisted into support for such short-sighted extremism. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, once said: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Like Pope Francis, he understood the importance of loving and tending the gift of creation.
If Pope Francis can persuade the communist Raúl Castro to reconsider Catholicism, I can hope that the Pope’s respect for the scientific consensus on climate change will foster a more constructive dialogue between the communities of science, faith and policymakers. His recognition that the economy and the environment are inextricably linked, especially for the desperately poor, builds on a foundation that is older and deeper than the recent US culture wars.
Nature 523, 503 (30 July 2015)