Last October my wife and I saw two bald eagles soaring above the Ohio River, against a perfect blue sky. This was right by downtown Louisville. Below the eagles were bridges, boats, cars, buildings, parks and people out enjoying the day.
Kentuckians used to have to go to places like Alaska to see bald eagles. When I was young, I read that “apex predators” like the bald eagle revealed the health of an ecosystem. Their absence was bad: toxins in the environment advanced up the food chain, and apex predators, who ate things that ate the toxins, died. Over my lifetime, birds of prey have returned. Owls hoot at night in the park near my house. Peregrine falcons rest on Louisville bridges. Hawks are everywhere.
So I understand those who are skeptical about claims that the Earth is in environmental peril. They might hear Rachel’s Martin’s statement in an October episode of “Morning Edition,” “The threat from climate change is so massive, so apocalyptic, it can be hard to wrap your head around.”
They might read Pope Francis’s statement in “Laudato Si” — The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” — and scoff, especially if they can recall how, not so long ago, the downtown Louisville sky was often polluted and filthy yellow.
Moreover, our skeptics might say that Kentucky needs to prioritize jobs, education, and opportunities, to have fewer people hopeless and addicted to opiates.
But what else was soaring in Kentucky last October? The temperatures! Following an extremely hot and dry September, early October saw temperatures in the upper 90s, shattering records by 5 degrees. Kentucky wilted.
The idea that human activity is altering the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to retain heat more efficiently, is not complex, and it is not new. In 1866 Jesuit Father Angelo Secchi, a meteorologist and pioneer astrophysicist, wrote “Definitely we are facing a climate change, due to human activity such as deforestation and the introduction of artificial sources of heat [i.e. burning fuels].”
Measurements indicate that the atmosphere is indeed changing as would be expected from deforestation and the burning of fuels.
Measurements indicate that the Earth is warming.
So how to balance the soaring eagles and the soaring temperatures? Blaise Pascal, whose principles students learn in science and math classes today, was a founder of Decision Theory — the science of balancing risks and rewards to make rational choices.
He was a man of great faith. He wrote on risks and rewards to urge faith. Faith is low-risk and high-reward, he wrote: low-risk because, if there is no God, then faith merely wastes part of what is already (absent God) a meaningless life; high-reward because, if there is a God, then faith gains a relationship with The Infinite.
Pascal’s balancing applies to the environment. Scientists like me are people — imperfect. Thus, we Kentuckians risk changing our lifestyles and our spending priorities for a scientific idea about climate that might be mistaken. But if scientists are not mistaken, then we risk wilting heat waves hitting in July, rather than October. If July temperature records are ever shattered like the October records were, that will be hard on both our land and our economy, and our lifestyles and spending priorities will change anyway.
We risk the judgment of our children and grandchildren either way. They may judge us fools who, heeding pope and scientists, paid a bill for a mistaken idea about environmental apocalypse when eagles were soaring overhead. Or, they may judge us fools who — ignoring pope, scientists and October 2019’s soaring temperatures — left them hot, dry and paying the bill.
Chris Graney is an adjunct scholar with the Vatican’s astronomical observatory. He lives in Louisville.