“Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet,” Pope Francis began in his first papal encyclical on the environment last week.
In his far-reaching 184-page letter titled “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home” the pope said the earth is fast resembling “an immense pile of filth” and declared the urgent need for a “bold cultural revolution.” The document also contained a stark reinterpretation of the concept of “dominion” in Genesis, marking a seismic shift in traditional Christian beliefs regarding the relationship between humans and nature. He said Christians should “forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
“Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” wrote the pope, whose namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is said to have found spiritual communion in nature. “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.'”
The pope framed climate change as a looming catastrophe, especially for the world’s poor, with the potential to cause “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems,” rising sea levels, extreme weather events and masses of climate refugees. And he didn’t mince words about the perpetrators of the earth’s environmental destruction.
“Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms,” Francis wrote.
Francis said that wealthy nations and multinational corporations that use foreign debt as a way to control poorer countries, while exploiting their natural resources and polluting their land and water, owe them an “ecological debt” by limiting consumption of fossil fuels and assisting them in more sustainable development. He warned of “new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims,” once humans deplete the last of certain resources.
While religious doctrine and science have often been at odds, the pope’s message that global warming trends are caused by human activity puts him firmly on the side of 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists.
Maine’s Climate Future
Although some Mainers have been questioning the science of climate change due to the recent cold winter, scientists point out that 2014 was the warmest year on record in the rest of the world, while nine of the ten warmest years have occurred just this century. As the east coast suffered through one of the snowiest and at times coldest winters on record, parts of the West experienced some of their warmest and least snowy conditions on record, writes Dr. Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at Weather Underground. Masters says that the dramatic contrast in weather events is connected to the current position of the jet stream across North America.
And according to scientists who have 800,000 years of carbon records derived from glacial ice core samples, there is a strong link between earth temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
“Carbon dioxide is like a blanket that you put on your bed on a cold Maine winter night to keep you warm,” said University of New Hampshire climatologist Cameron Wake at the Maine’s Economy & Climate Change conference on June 12 at Bowdoin College. “It’s exactly the same physics. More carbon dioxide, more warmth.”
It’s estimated that humans emit about 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, with 90 percent of it coming from the combustion of fossil fuels and 10 percent from deforestation. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time since it had been compiling the data in 1979. University of Maine soil scientist Ivan Fernandez says he’s measured even higher levels of CO2 in Maine because the region is at the “tailpipe of the Northeast.”
The average annual temperature in Maine has warmed by about 3.0 °F since 1895, according to the latest Maine’s Climate Future report, released earlier this year by the Maine Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. Authors of the report say climate models predict that the warm season will increase by an additional two weeks over the next 50 years and the region will experience four to eight times as many heat waves by the end of the century.
This week, Maine physicians joined U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy at the White House to declare climate change a public health threat due to the likelihood of more frequent heat waves and higher ozone pollution.
“High heat is very dangerous on its own,” said Dr. Tony Owens, an emergency room physician at Maine Medical Center, in a new release. “But warmer air also creates more ozone pollution and extends the pollen season. This means more asthma attacks, respiratory infections, heart attacks, and even early death. Maine has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, and our location at the end of the nation’s tailpipe puts us at particular risk.”
Maine could also see two to three times more extreme precipitation events, defined as four inches over 48 hours, said Wake. However, he noted that climate models are continually being reworked and a lot will depend on how fast Arctic sea ice melts, which he says acts as “an air conditioner for the hemisphere,” reflecting incoming solar radiation right back into space.
“You get rid of that sea ice, and that solar radiation is absorbed by the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean is warming up,” said Wake.
But regardless of whether nation states have the will to agree on a solution to radically cut carbon emissions, local scientists say climate change is already here.
“Clearly the environment is changing, so the land cover that dominates our state and much of our economy, our recreation and our culture is undergoing changes unlike it has ever seen before,” said Fernandez.
Less Snow, More Rain
Changes in the global climate system have also affected the seasonal distribution and total precipitation in Maine, the UMaine Climate Future report noted. Since 1895, the total annual precipitation has increased by about 6 inches, or 13 percent. By 2050, scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict that precipitation will continue to increase in the Northeast by 5 to 10 percent.
“We better start organizing our infrastructure to deal with this,” said Wake. “We have time to deal with this.”
The UMaine Climate Future report notes that the Northeast has seen “a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events, taxing an already stressed and aging infrastructure.” In particular, record rainfall in August 2014 caused flooding in downtown Portland as well as $100,000 in damages in Freeport and $200,000 in Brunswick. The report also predicts extreme rain events could pollute lakes and streams due to nutrient run-off, noting that a heavy rainfall in 2012 combined with a particularly warm year fueled a massive algae bloom in Lake Auburn.
However, snowfall could decline by as much as 40 percent along the coast due to climate change, although the frequency of extreme snowfall events like nor’easters is likely to increase, say local climate researchers. The Camden Snow Bowl is among over 100 ski resorts that have signed the Climate Declaration calling for action on climate change.
Sea Level Rise
It’s estimated that sea levels are rising at a rate of 0.07 inches per year, which is a faster rate than at any time in the past 5,000 years. Climate models project global sea levels to rise an additional 0.5 to 2 feet by 2050, according to the National Climate Assessment.
“We should start preparing for 1 to 2 feet of sea level rise by the middle of the century and 4 to 6 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century for any significant infrastructure we have on the coast,” said Wake. “That uncertainty is really driven by our lack of understanding of the dynamics of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. We should have better estimates on that in the near future.”
UMaine researchers say rising sea levels also threaten salt marshes, which help protect coastal property, and may leave developed areas more vulnerable to flooding and landslides. The threat of climate change is also causing flood zones to move inland and increased insurance costs.
“The rising level of the ocean keeps bringing storms closer, making what would have been a bad storm 100 years ago a ‘great’ storm of the future,” wrote the report’s authors.
Plants, Animals and Invasive Pests
A changing climate is also expected to have serious impacts on at least two-thirds of the state’s animal and plant life. A 2014 report by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences suggests that 213 animal species in Maine are highly vulnerable to climate change. Moose are believed to be especially at risk due to their sensitivity to heat and ticks, which are increasingly enduring Maine’s winters. Lyme disease spread by deer ticks is on the rise, which UMaine researchers say is linked to a changing climate that is more suitable to the pests. The rate of Lyme disease spiked from 108 reported cases in 2001 to a record 1,377 in 2013, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control.
In addition to ticks, other invasive pests like winter moth, Asian long-horned beetles and emerald ash borers are finding Maine’s climate more hospitable, which presents challenges to the state’s forestry sector, says Small Woodlot Owners of Maine Director Tom Doak.
“Those are going to change the forest,” said Doak. “[They] may be able to survive here as the climate changes at a rate that we don’t quite understand.”
Doak also noted that wetter springs are causing pine needle blight to flourish, which causes white pine trees to lose their needles.
A Changing Climate for Farming
“We haven’t seen any more of what I’d call ‘normal weather years’ for our farmers,” said Steve Getz, the New England director of CROPP Cooperative, a farmer-owned cooperative that produces Organic Valley milk. “Weather volatility and unpredictability actually is a direct and serious problem for our dairy farmers and farmers in general.”
Getz said that the organization is considering weather-related assistance for the first time in its 26-year history largely due to punishing droughts in the western part of the country. The dry conditions have also impacted New England farmers, as droughts in the Midwest caused feed grain to skyrocket in 2013. While excessive precipitation can harm local agriculture, the region is also experiencing longer growing seasons and the US Department of Agriculture shifted the overall plant hardiness zones north by half a zone in Maine in 2012. Getz said Maine also has an abundance of water and good grass, which offers opportunities to turn more local land into farm production.
UNH climatologist Cameron Wake said that while locals have been ringing their hands about losing population in recent years, it is not prepared for an influx of rich people from away coming to live in Maine when other areas of the country become uninhabitable.
“The common story line is that Maine is getting old, we’re worried about everyone leaving,” said Wake. “That will change, in my humble opinion, once California and New Mexico and Utah and Arizona continue to dry up.”
The Gulf of Maine in Turmoil
“As fishermen, the ocean is our workplace, our cultural heritage and economically sustains us and our extended communities as it has for generations,” said Richard Nelson, a lobsterman who fishes out of Friendship Harbor. “Those who work on the ocean day-to-day live with effects of small changes in climate, while observing the subsequent changes in habitat and species behaviors. All of this may be evident in our catch rates and how we see species progress through the seasonal life cycles. We’re highly dependent on the health of the ocean and its resources.”
Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are subject to extreme variability due to the interactions between colder, fresher water currents from the north and warmer saltier water from the south as well as atmospheric fluctuations, according to UMaine researchers. However, the long-term warming trend is clear. Between 1982 and 2004, temperatures in the Gulf rose by about 0.05 degrees per year, but that pace has since accelerated to nearly ten times faster – to about a half-degree per year. By that measure, the Gulf of Maine is heating up faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. However, Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute says the 99 percent figure is not necessarily a projection.
“We don’t know whether we’ll continue on that rate,” said Pershing at the conference. “However, trends still show it is warming faster relative to the rest of the world. What we’ve seen over the past 10 years is that we’ve basically fast-forwarded almost 30 to 50 years in terms of conditions in the ocean.”
This has led climate scientists to worry about the impact the trend will have on local marine species. In recent years, Maine lobstermen have reported record lobster catches, which researchers believe may be related to warmer water temperatures in the south that force lobsters north as well as fewer predators in the Gulf, like cod, which have been in decline due to overfishing. However, lobsters are sensitive to varying water temperatures, which can make them stressed and more vulnerable to shell diseases and parasites.
“The flipside of that and the scary part is that if you look to our south in Rhode Island, shell disease has decimated that fishery,” said Pershing. “They no longer have a state fishery in Rhode Island for lobsters, where 50 years ago that was really the center of the lobster fishery.”
A 2013 study in the journal Science found that the American lobster has shifted 43 miles northward in the last decade. Local researchers have also found that increasing water temperatures and the decline of phytoplankton abundance have hastened the decline of Northern shrimp, which have been an important winter fishery for local fishermen. As Pershing notes, Northern shrimp are a subarctic species and Maine is at the very southern end of their range, so as the Gulf of Maine warms, it is becoming increasingly inhospitable to that species. UMaine researchers have also noted an increase in warmer-water species that are turning up in local fishermen’s nets, including red hake, turbot, squid, black sea bass, blue crab, butterfish, longfin squid, summer flounder, yellowtail flounder, sea horses and ocean sunfish. It’s believed that some of the new warmer-water predators like black sea bass are threatening lobster populations.
Acid in the Waters
Local researchers and fishermen have also been raising the alarm about ocean acidification, which is when carbon dioxide goes into the ocean and creates corrosive carbonic acid, reducing the pH and the carbonate ion concentration in the sea water. Because many marine organisms – like clams, oysters, sea urchins and corals – use calcium carbonate to build their shells, local marine scientists say acidic oceans pose a real threat to local fisheries. Globally, it’s estimated that the oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic over the last century, a faster rate than anything the marine realm has experienced in millions of years.
By some estimates, the acidification of the oceans may be occurring 100 times faster than at any other time in the last 200,000 years. At that rate, scientists say Maine’s coastal marine ecosystem may not be able to adapt to the changes fast enough. Because fresh water is naturally more acidic than salt water and cold water is more acidic than warmer water, climate researchers say the Gulf of Maine is uniquely susceptible to acidification due to ocean currents that bring cold, fresh water from the north and warmer water inputs from the south.
Pershing said that ocean temperatures in the Gulf may start to level off, but factoring in the rate of current carbon emissions, the Gulf of Maine could see a 5 to 7 degree change over the next 100 years.
“A warm year for us is something that we’ve never experienced in the Gulf of Maine,” said Pershing, adding, “The Gulf of Maine begins to look like New Jersey. So if you like New Jersey, I guess you’ll like the future, but I guess I like Maine.”
So What Must Be Done?
Delivering the keynote address at Maine’s Economy & Climate Change conference, lawyer Dan Reicher – director of the energy policy center at Stanford University and a former Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration – argued that new technologies like efficient lightbulbs, the Google Power meter, plug-in vehicles, batteries, more energy-efficient appliances as well as government policies promoting automobile fuel economy standards, renewable energy tax credits and carbon credits have the potential to combat climate change.
“We’ve powered this country on wood. We’ve powered this country mostly on coal. We discovered oil. We discovered natural gas,” said Reicher. “Over time, over decades, over centuries we’ve been making these transitions, and we are making the transition to renewable energy and that’s a very exciting development.”
But as it becomes increasingly clear that the world’s political institutions are unwilling and unable to effectively address the climate crisis, many activists, including Pope Francis himself, are questioning the underlying economic forces that are perpetuating the ecological destruction of the planet.
In his papal encyclical, Francis blasted the concept of “unlimited economic growth,” which he said “proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology,” but “is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond limit.”
He criticized policies like granting carbon credits to polluters as a “ploy” that would “provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment,” but would not “allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.” He argued that humanity must be forced to recognize “the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”
“We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers to man-made problems,” wrote the pope. “But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We think we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”
Francis added that “people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer seem to have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities.”
He noted “a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere.”
But amid the dire warnings in the papal ecyclical, there was also a compelling message of hope.
“Yet we can once more broaden our vision,” the pope continued. “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?”