Sick of hearing about the pope’s encyclical? How about the “400-year-old collective […] that operates as the pope’s eyes and ears on the natural world,” a.k.a. the “secret science committee” behind that encyclical?
Didn’t think so. Here’s the scoop from Bloomberg:
The Pontifical Academy has about 80 members, all of them appointed for life. Scientists hail from many nations, religions, and disciplines, which today include astronomy, biochemistry, physics, and mathematics. Members pursue the scientific issues they deem most important to society, without Vatican interference. Unlike the National Academy of Sciences, which is financially independent from the U.S., the Pontifical Academy relies on the Vatican to keep the lights on.
The full academy meets every two years and is often granted an audience from the pope. In the stretches between the biannual sessions, scientists hold workshops and produce reports on whichever topics they agree are most important for the pope to understand.
And they’ve been worried about climate change for quite some time:
Academy events have addressed the basics of climate change going back at least to October 1980. That’s when Italian physicist Giampietro Puppi addressed the academy during a weeklong workshop on energy.
“The introduction into the atmosphere of an additional amount of particulates and gas, as a result of fuel burning,” said Puppi, an academy member from 1978 until his death, in 2006, “represents in the medium term, decades to centuries, the most important issue and the one of greatest concern on a global scale.”
Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been a member of the academy since 2004. He told Bloomberg that the group is completely secular: “Not all of them even believe in a god. They are there for pure scientific excellence, and they are not co-opted by any country. They’re not co-opted by the United Nations.”
In April, the academy invited religious leaders from all over — Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and other Christians — to the Vatican for a symposium on climate change. Here’s more from Bloomberg:
They heard from Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, who popularized the notion that human industry has shoved the world into a new geological phase — the “anthropocene,” or in plainspeak, “the human age.”
And they heard Jeffrey Sachs, prolific writer and Columbia University economist, say that “we can still, but just barely,” avoid pollution levels that lead to dangerous climate change risk.
But the pope doesn’t necessarily take advice from the committee, Werner Arber, a Nobel-winning molecular biologist and the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told Bloomberg. If he doesn’t “appreciate” their work, he’s free to pretty much ignore it.
In an email to Bloomberg, British astronomer Martin Rees, who has been on the committee since 1990, wrote that “the Vatican is as opaque to me as to you!” But he added that this encyclical is encouraging — it could have an impact in the developing world and “maybe also in your Republican Party.”
Yeesh. That’s embarrassing. And also, unfortunately, pretty wishful thinking.