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Laudato Si and the Epistemology of Climate Change

More than a year after the release of Laudato Si critics continue to claim that Pope Francis should not have become entangled in the climate controversy.  Claiming that issues surrounding the climate have little to do with matters related to the faith, much of the criticism has focused on the Holy Father’s warning that “human activity” is to blame for what he called the “disturbing warming of the climatic system.” Little attention has been given to the important epistemological questions that have arisen surrounding the future of the climate system

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, and addresses such questions as “what is knowledge?” and “when does someone have it?” An epistemological question particularly relevant to Pope Francis’s encyclical is, “How do we know that man-made harmful climate change is occurring?” For if climate change is not occurring, or, if there is no way that we can know that it is occurring, it would seem to be something we need not worry about. I should point out that our question is more complicated than merely considering the truth or falsity of the claim of man-made climate change, but rather is about identifying the right kind of evidence or justification for claiming that we know that climate change is occurring. These are separate since there are situations when one should believe something or claim that they know it even if it turns out to be false.

The Scientific Method Considered

Upon immediate consideration, there is no straightforward answer to the question about whether man-made climate change is occurring. Climate changes very slowly. Climate change involves the overall global system. Climate change produces counter-intuitive and unanticipated weather changes. It is statistical in nature. Climate change is not something that can be directly observed in a way accessible to an individual judgment of common sense. By ‘common sense’ I mean the source for making a judgment about whether something is true or not based on direct lived experience, memories of lived experience, reliable testimony of other’s lived experience, or a mixture therein. But common sense judgments such as “This winter has felt about as cold as last winter,” or, “People say that winter has felt much colder this year than past several winters,” or, “It seems impossible that the activities of man could impact the entire planet” are perfectly consistent with the reality of climate change.

This is exactly what the scientific method is for: to make judgments that simple common sense judgments cannot make.

First, it utilizes measured and broad observations over long periods of time to produce data that can be analyzed according to reliable statistical methods. In fact, data itself is amenable to improvement based on the application of statistical methodologies. For this reason, the scientific method produces objective judgments. So powerful is the objectivity of scientific judgments that it has caused us to look at things in very radically different ways. Oftentimes it has called into question the reliability of common sense judgments about rather universally accepted things: one example being identifying depression with a chemical imbalance as opposed to a primarily spiritual or moral defect. This is in contrast to common sense judgments that are famously subject to bias or suggestion. So, unlike the objective judgments of science, common sense judgment on climate change is often skewed by political and economic expediency, fear, or indifference.

Second, using reliable observations in conjunction with empirically falsifiable theories, the scientific method is able to make accurate future predictions that are empirically testable. Models are predictive in nature based on data and theoretical formulae that determine likely values of data into the future. The predictive nature of science is one of the great successes of the scientific method. It gets results, whether it’s in physics and predicting the future position of a satellite, or in medicine, with the curative powers of a particular drug.

Third, given the common methodology and rigorous application of terminology and procedure, science has the reputation for being progressive in nature. It is constructive and goes from discovery to discovery, truth to truth. Regarding climate science, it utilizes scientific advancement in the world of chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics and computer science. This is in contrast to common sense judgments, which utilizes language that is often pragmatic in nature but rather ambiguous. As a result, much confusion arises in common sense judgments when employed about issues of climate; one such proverbial folly is in confusing climate with weather.

Fourth, science provides truths reliably because of the replicability of its results. There is an epistemic security in the fact that a result can be replicated at any time by anyone as long as comparable equipment and methods are used. This is in contrast with the common sense judgments, which are equally famous for not being reliable. One need only think about the findings about the staggering inaccuracies of eyewitness testimonies in law courts.

Is Harmful Man-Made Climate Change Occurring?

Since common sense and scientific judgments seem to be the only options we have for determining how we know whether man-made climate change is occurring or not, there is another more relevant question and that is, should we have more confidence in scientific or common sense judgments when seeking an answer to the question, “how do we know whether climate change is occurring or not?” It is clear based on the above analysis that one should always look to science to answer the question about whether we know that the climate is changing, due to human activity, and for the worse.

In May 2016, a First Things article by William A. Wilson called “Scientific Regress” points to some worrisome trends in science. Based on studies performed on published scientific papers, there was called into question all of the noble features of science that I described above: its objectivity, its genuine predicative value, its progressive nature, and its replicability, and this is across both hard and soft scientific disciplines. For example, fudging data to get desired results, inability to replicate results of published findings, skewing journals toward articles with high impact factor and positive experimental results, etc., seem to besmirch the pristine epistemic value of contemporary scientific findings, and so casts a shadow upon climate science as well.

But this is where climate skepticism seems to come in. Do the problems that are coming to light tarnishing the reputation of science imply the truth of climate skepticism? I’m using the term ‘climate skepticism’ to mean the view that asserts that “we know that man-made climate change is occurring” is false and that that assertion is based on sound science. It seems that climate skepticism is at a severe disadvantage to the man-made climate change point of view since “sound science” seems to be most likely associated with practices carried out by most scientists, and most scientists have concluded that we know that man-made climate change is occurring. In addition, the potential harms from climate change gives it more weight.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

It would seem then that climate skepticism has the burden of proof upon it to disprove the climate change claim. Poking holes in the opposing view here and there is not going to do the trick. Furthermore, the problems about the regress of science detailed by William Wilson would apply just as much to the claims of the climate skeptics as well! Since the burden of proof is on climate skeptics, they are required to establish scientifically the counter claim, and will be subject to many of the problems facing contemporary science as well. All of this results in a weakening of individual claims established scientifically that the views of those in the climate change camp are wrong. Still, climate skeptics cannot rely on common sense judgments to buttress their own arguments due to the inability of common sense to make competent judgments about climate change at all.

What are we left with in regards to the original state of the question from an epistemological perspective? It seems that the mainstream climate change community’s judgment about climate change is the best chance that we have to get to the truth of the question “Do we know that man-made climate change is occurring?” We still do not know that for certain.  Mainstream scientists could be wrong, and the troubling trends in academic science certainly makes such an error a distinct possibility.  But, it is the best we can do epistemologically speaking—and it is fair to say that the judgment of Pope Francis and his “call to action” on climate change in Laudato Si is epistemologically sound.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Francisco Bruno

    With all due respect, it is highly doubtful that “the mainstream climate change community’s judgment” on climate change was scientifically arrived at. No one doubts that man contributes, to some extent, to climate change; but if you start from the assumption that it is the MAIN cause, of course you will “prove” the hypothesis.
    And it seems that that is what’s happening.
    Anyway, it doesn’t matter: even if the hypothesis is right, the measures proposed are far from scientifically sound; they are clearly eminently political — and politically correct, at that.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      How often we read or hear: “CO2 is a pollutant” which is totally false (think beer and plant food) and other falsehoods such as the “Arctic ocean surface ice melted due to warmer air temperatures” – no it was a temporary shift in ocean currents that caused a temporary melting (think ice in 50F water melting when ice at ambient air 50F hardly does.) Then all of the one sided reporting and research.

      Could global warming be happening? Maybe.
      Could humans be the cause?

      That’s two maybe’s, a lot of falsehood, little common sense and a PC attitude.
      I’m skeptical and vote no.

      • Jamesthelast

        A poor argument. What is defined as a “pollutant” is not black and white, but is a relative value to describe a chemical as dangerous to what ever. For example, chlorine. A little chlorine in water is a good thing because it kills microbs. But if there is too much of it, or it is in gas form, it becomes dangerous to humans and therefor would be a pollutant.
        It’s the same for CO2. Yes we need it to live, because it keeps the planet warm, but if the CO2 is too much, the temperature gets too warm, and that is dangerous to living things that rely on their ecosystems to be a certain consistent temperature.

        • Thomas Sharpe

          Then all things are pollutants, since all things in excess are bad?
          That’s dumb.

          No, you don’t get to hijack the meaning of words.

          • Jamesthelast

            You still don’t understand, all things are pollutants when in excess. The point you are missing is “excess.” Water is and needed to live, but if you drink too much at once, you drown. Food is good and needed, but if you eat too much, your body is overwhelmed and dies. Same with CO2. CO2 is needed for life, but when it is in excess, it is bad for life because the earth gets too warm.

          • Thomas Sharpe

            I’m reading in front of my wood stove, it’s running a little hot putting out “excess” heat. Oh I’m sorry, it’s “polluting” the house. I better call the EPA.

  • VisPacem

    “Regarding climate science, it utilizes scientific advancement in the world of chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics and computer science.”

    This reflection does not get to the fundamental issue, which is whether some so-called “scientists” (many supposedly quoted as authorities who support the climate change agenda were discovered to not be specialists who do not possess expertise in relevant disciplines to be true authorities) truly have abused, rather than utilized what is science or procedures to attain demonstrative and probable certitude.

    Models have been skewed to support already presumed true conclusions and collusion between certain researchers and those with vested interests monetarily (politicians and non-politicians) have supported such adulterations of truth.

    Granted all the manipulation of research, it is not “fair to say that the judgment of Pope Francis … on climate change … is epistemologically sound.” Rather, his judgment actually seems presumptuous, precipitous, and possibly unfounded.

    • Francisco Bruno

      I agree, with all due respect for the Church. But I confess, humbly, that I can’t respect His Holiness jugdment on climate change. And I don’t think that’s a sin, except, perhaps, of pride (hence de humbleness); after all, it is not a matter of dogma and, therefore, it is not covered by Papal infalibility.

    • As they say, there’s a sucker born every day and the justification by “science” is the ultimate “epistemological” evidence. Someone should tell the author of this piece that they use science to substantiate claims on those magic wrinkle creams and weight loss pills. They use “science” to justify the sales of millions of vitamin supplements, which are basically a waste of time and money.

      • VisPacem

        You’re certainly right about a lot of false claims used to promote all too many things under the label of “science,” which ultimately just means whether one has truly certain or highly probable knowledge about this or that.

        I would say, though, that some (quite of bit, if one is selective) research on vitamin supplements and alternative approaches to healing certain medical issues may well have some justification as being very probable.

        There are a lot of variables in those areas based perhaps on how extremely complex each individual is due to genetic and environmental factors.

        I remember a book that always interested me many years ago by Dr. Roger J. Williams (University of Texas researcher) called Biochemical Individuality.

        Best regards.

  • So much of our ideological entrenchment has roots in a failure to distinguish questions well on the epistemological plain. Your article is refreshing and needed; thank you.

  • Nonsense. Models are repeatedly wrong. I work with engineering models. To put absolute faith in such models is poor science. The phrase engineers use is, “garbage in, garbage out.” The fact that these models have consistently failed to predict the climate temperatures is evidence enough that the phenomena is either not completely understood or or the input quantities are not fully characterized. It’s so easy to miscalculate. We’re talking about being to the accuracy of a fraction of a degree over a hundred or so years over the entire planet. Remember all the crazy predictions from 20 years ago? Well, they didn’t happen. Sorry, they have not proven and it would be idiotic to spend billions (if not trillions) of dollars in altering our economies over something unproven. And may I add, that a number of those supporting climate change were caught fudging and lying about the numbers.

    As to Pope Francis, he really shouldn’t get into issues like this. It does his reputation no good. Stick to the Catholic faith.

  • B. R. Mullikin

    I suppose contrary to many commenters here, I thought this was a thoughtful article. So thank you for writing it. For the other commenters, perhaps reread the article without your “I’m going to disagree” goggles on. Nothing that is said above is controversial. Other than the fact that the topic is about this our time and there are too many subordinate clauses (I kid. just a bad joke about Medieval Latin), I could see much of this article forming the substance of a St. Thomas Aquinas respondio.

    If you are going to disagree with climate change you need to do so on the basis of scientific assertions and sound judgements, not anecdotes and ad hominem. If there is bad science being done, expose it through good science; identify the logical flaws and show the inherent shortcomings. Numquam negare, raro affirmare, semper distinguere.

  • Jamesthelast

    The notion that it is politically correct to say that man’s CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels is politically correct and exactly what the powerful in the world want is nonsensical. The solution to get the ecological crisis we are in means the current neo-liberal mass consumption capitalistic society needs to be dismantled. There’s too much wealth and power tied in to the status quo to believe that climate change is a form of a power grab. Taking climate change seriously the current elite class will have to give up their wealth and power.

    The big claim that the Pope makes in Laudato Si is that the climate crisis is the result of the fundamental failure of man’s project of modernity. The failure is Descartes’ attempt to make man “the lords and masters of nature.” Humanity needs to heed the alarm bells that we are not the masters of nature, only God is, and must respect it.