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Cardinal Pell's climate 'hot air'

By Tim Stephens - posted Monday, 23 May 2011

On 18 May 2011, the Sydney Morning Herald reported 'a dire warning about the need to mitigate man-made global warning from a Vatican-appointed panel of scientists has not yet convinced Australia's highest-ranking Catholic', Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell.

The 'warning' came from The Fate of the Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene, the first report released by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an independent body within the Holy See. It notes that today's change in ice cover (the most visible evidence of climate change) is happening at an unprecedented rate and is due to human-induced changes in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

The report echoes the positions of both John Paul II, who spoke at length about environmental questions, and Benedict XVI, who expressed similar anxieties and has overseen the Vatican's endeavors to become the first carbon neutral state.


The Vatican's views, however, are not shared throughout the Church, and Pell's is the loudest and most persistent voice of dissent. He has not taken aim at the Pope for his views on climate change, but has been exceptionally vigorous in his criticism of climate change and climate scientists.

The difficulty is not that he holds heterodox views on this issue. We are all entitled to our opinions. What is concerning is Australia's most senior Catholic clergyman vigorously advancing a position that could be interpreted as a statement of the official stance of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Earlier this year Dr Greg Ayers, head of the Bureau of Meteorology, painstakingly examined the scientific claims made by the Cardinal in a letter tabled in a Senate estimates hearing. In response, Pell called Ayers one of Australia's leading atmospheric scientists with 140 peer-reviewed articles to his name, a 'hot air-specialist' who had made 'an unscientific contribution'.

This is but one of the more recent inflammatory statements by Pell, who often deploys more colourful rhetoric and invective on climate change than Tony Abbott or Andrew Bolt in his attacks on 'warmers'.

Over a number of years in Pell’s column in the Sunday Telegraph and the Catholic Weekly he has argued that the climate is not changing or, if it is, it is not changing as much as it has in the past, or if it has that this is natural, and that human beings have had no impact, or a negligible one, and that nothing we can do will make any difference.

He has repeated the talking points of climate skeptics that have been thoroughly refuted by climate scientists by reference to the peer-reviewed science (this is aggregated on the excellent website Skeptical Science run by Australian physicist John Cook (himself a committed Christian).


Pell relies on the work of Professor Ian Plimer, one of Australia's leading geologists, who is an atheist and outspoken critic of creationism. However Plimer's book, Heaven and Earth, which seeks to debunk climate change, has itself been debunked by Professor Ian Enting, a mathematician at the University of Melbourne, and by one of Plimer's own colleagues and friends Professor Barry Brook.

On the basis of Plimer's work, Pell has said:“evidence shows the wheels are falling from the climate catastrophe bandwagon”; rejoiced in the “wonderful irony” that winter weather in Copenhagen in December 2009 interfered with the 'huge jamboree on global warming'; claimed “it is improbable that human activity can achieve significant global climate changes” and that climate researchers have “fiddle[d] with the evidence” (he did not apologise once the University of East Anglia scientists were cleared); criticised those who correctly describe carbon dioxide as a pollutant as “propagandists capturing the language”; stated that there is no consensus among climate scientists; asked “how long must global cooling continue before it becomes a problem for global warmers?' (even though we've just had the warmest decade on record); repeated that the temperatures in the Middle Ages were higher than they are today (the peer-reviewed science says they were not); then delighted in what he called the “delicious” fact that there was a cold snap in Europe in December 2010 in response to the claim by “global warmers...that 2010...[was] one of the hottest years on record”.

It should be no surprise then that Pell was listed in 2009 as a supporter of the Australian Climate Skeptics Party (although it must be noted that this was not at the Cardinal's request: he is not a member of any political party). This is an extraordinary amount of commentary lavished by Pell on one issue. No other contemporary issue seems to have attracted his attention to the same extent.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article appeared in Eureka Street on 19 May 2011. 

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About the Author

Dr Tim Stephens is Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law, at the Faculty of Law, University of Sydney and a parishioner at St Joan of Arc, Haberfield, NSW. He holds a masters degree in geography from the University of Cambridge, a doctorate in international environmental law from the University of Sydney, and writes on climate change science, policy and law. His latest book, co-authored with Donald R Rothwell, is The International Law of the Sea.

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