Fr Kevin Hegarty
I know an old priest who often rages about the dilapidated state of the Irish Catholic Church today. He looks back longingly to a time when churches were thronged, priests were revered and bishops felt they could tell our democratically elected government what to do. He has a roseate vision of the past, untarnished by any reference to the clerical sexual abuse scandals which were germinating under that pious surface. Nostalgia, it has been well said, can be a product of good wine and a bad memory.
Then rant over, he subsides into his armchair, sighs and comforts himself with the thought that the tottering structure will probably last for his lifetime.
I wonder do many of us turn a similar deaf ear to reality when we hear stories of the environmental crisis that is enveloping our world. We assume that we will muddle through and that Armageddon will not occur in our lifetimes.
Like the poet, Philip Larkin, we reflect: “Things are tougher than we are, just. / As earth will always respond / However we mess it about; / Chuck filth into the sea, if you must: / The tides will be clean beyond.”
Later, Larkin copped on: “It seems, just now, / To be happening so very fast; / Despite all the land left free / For the first time I feel somehow / That it isn’t going to last.”
Almost every day brings more news of the mounting environmental crisis. As heavy rain caused havoc in Ireland during the past week, a report was issued asserting that we may have to get used to it.
The report is a serious academic study, not a collation of the fervid ramblings of ECO-warriors who have overdosed on fresh air and, possibly, more potent drugs.
Published under the aegis of the Irish Academy of Engineering, entitled, ‘Ireland at Risk: Critical Infrastructure - Adaptation for Climate Change’, its production involved over 60 researchers, engineers, scientists, policy experts and administrators from all over Ireland. Its sober prose makes for scary reading.
The report claims that a rise in sea levels of half-a metre, allied with storm surges, means that a once-in-a-century flood could occur as often as once every five years. Experts reckon that a one-metre rise is more likely by 2100.
Should this happen, water supplies would be contaminated. Extreme weather could damage energy installations, hospitals, telecommunications and railways. Homes and businesses in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway and in coastal towns might become uninsurable.
Michael Hayden, President of the Academy, has exhorted the government to protect critical infrastructure. He cited the example of the Netherlands, which is spending €1.5 billion annually on adapting to climate change. A failure to act now will put society “at an unacceptable risk.” You’ve only to think of Hurricane Katrina for an example of how climate change, coupled with poor planning, can lead to social and economic disaster.
The Academy of Engineering report followed the publication the previous week of ‘The Cry of the Earth’, a pastoral reflection on the environment from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
The pastoral reflects how Catholic theological thinking on the environment has evolved in recent years. John Hart, Professor of Christian Ethics at Boston University, has written “Catholic environmental thought now represents and reinforces the basic tenets of biblical environmental thought: earth is permeated by the presence of God-immanent; all creation is very good; and the goods of creation are intended by their creator to provide for all these good creatures. These understandings are complemented by an emerging consciousness: humans are not superior to and over all creatures, nor is the universe created solely to satisfy human needs. Humankind is integrated in, interdependent within, and interrelated with all the community of life, with its own complementary niche and role.”
The bishops are perturbed that transport emissions in Ireland rose by 130 per cent between 1990 and 2003, whereas the increase in the rest of Europe was 23 per cent. They urge the government to devise policies to reduce our carbon footprint by 40 per cent by 2020.
Among their other recommendations are that schools and parishes should implement recycling policies and that the developing countries, who are suffering most from global warming, should receive substantial support in all international policies to combat climate change.
The Irish Academy of Engineering report and the bishops’ pastoral have appeared within weeks of the international summit on climate change in Copenhagen this December. World leaders face the daunting task on achieving agreement on policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to tackle the effects of climate change.
For a viable future for humanity, it is vital that they should succeed. Hoping that the environmental storm will blow over, literally and metaphorically, is not a policy. We need to be owls, not ostriches.