Seeing is Believing: The Role Astronomy Plays in Understanding Global Climate Change.

I'll believe it when I see it!  This pithy truism of our culture is often used to force hard data in the face of doubt.  Though this mentality has its limits, it also has its strengths, demanding that clear, empirical evidence be provided as proof that something is true.  For example, for years we have heard about the potential of water on Mars and, year after year, we hear of discoveries that point to the existence of water on the red planet.  On September 28th of this year, another announcement of the discover of water on Mars was made, but this time the news seemed to catch much more attention than previous discoveries.  The reason this finding made more news than those of the past is rather simple: NASA now has images in which they can actually see soil moisture on Mars' surface in addition to chemical analysis that confirms the high probability of water being present. (For a good interview on this subject, click here to hear Br. Guy explain this finding of water on Mars with Vatican Radio.)

A Video Animation Simulating the Water Marks Found on Mars


The Iconic Image of the Earth Known as "The Blue Marble."

This demand for empirical evidence not only gives us insight into distant planets, but also of our home, the Earth.  It's hard to believe that the first glimpse of our common home from outer space happened only 69 years ago.  In this short history of imaging the Earth from space, the most iconic image is undoubtedly the one called "The Blue Marble."  When speaking to people who saw this image when it was first revealed to the public, they recall not only the beauty of our planet, but also its fragility, awakening what we now know as the modern environmental movement.  The realization of our smallness gave a whole generation a profound moment of pause, realizing that our Earth needs to be cared for and treasured.  I find it ironic that this image of our home that evoked a strong call to peace and stewardship can trace its lineage back to World War II and confiscated German V2 rockets, fitted with a camera that gave us the first view of our planet from space.  It truly was a profound moment of taking the weapons of war and turning them into the tools of peace.


NASA Image of the ISS

From the refitting of weapons of war to the collaboration of nations that made the International Space Station possible, having a perspective of our common home from space has forever changed how we view the Earth.  We have learning much about our common home, including how ecological decisions are impacting our planet.  Similar to water on Mars, some question the existence of global warming, thinking that the changes seen in our environment are nothing more than normal, cyclical patterns of nature.  When talk emerges of global warming being unnatural, coming primarily from human sources, some demand empirical evidence to support these claims.  There are many ways to measure global warming, one of which is by observing our planet from space.  To echo the thought that began this post: If seeing is believing, then astronomy has given us much to consider when it comes to global warming.

Video Explaining How NASA Uses Astronomy to Monitor Global Warming

In the spirit of seeing is believing, some have recently argued that since Antarctica is making more ice than it is losing, we should question whether or not global warming is occurring.   There is a real power to this argument since it comes from tangible measurements, at the very least making us ask if there are deficiencies in our understanding of global warming?  However, many of the skeptics often fail to mention that these ice gains are happening in the eastern part of Antarctica, but the western peninsula is losing ice at an increasing rate.  If these rates continue, the losses from the west could overcome the gains in the east.  Further, these ice gains do not change the fact that NASA and NOAA determined that 2014 was the warmest year on record when compared with the history of global temperature changes.  These findings illumine an important point about climate change: It takes time and data from many sources to understand global climate change, requiring a multi-generational perspective to grasp the breadth of the problem.

A NASA Video Exploring How Astronomy is Used to Study CO2 Levels

In my last post on COP21, I made reference to how many in my home country of the United States question the reality of global warming.  Some have taken on the mantra that global warming is a "political issue" and the Holy Father, Pope Francis, should stay out the of "politics of climate change."  In defense of those critical of our Holy Father, there has been a strong connection with green industries and American politics, leading some to wonder how much of climate change politics is about our environment and how much is about election cycles?  The Catholic vision of care for creation is an approach to ecology that is not primarily political, but first an issue of morality and ethics under the rubric of human dignity.  This philosophical and theological grounding of ecology emphasizes that we are not only to be good stewards of creation, but also affirms that if we don't care for creation we will find it more and more difficult to uphold human dignity at every stage of life.  This approach to ecology begs many moral and ethical questions.

If we don't care for the environment, what impact will that have upon humanity's ability to exist?  What impact will a poor environment have upon our ability to use natural resources to produce stable economies?  If we lack resources to provide jobs for people, what will happen to a person's ability to care for their family and community?  How will a poor environment impact national security as more countries fight over dwindling amounts of usable land?  What impact will a poor environment have upon the most vulnerable in society?  If we do not embrace the responsibility of caring for creation, how will this impact our willingness to embrace our responsibility to uphold other core rights of the human person?  And so forth.

In short, we need to stop blinding ourselves to the problem of global warming because of the bitter politics that so divide our country.  Instead, we need to first take a "seeing is believing" attitude, looking at the best science we have about global warming and then explore the moral and ethical dimensions of how our decisions will impact human dignity.  After exploring this data, is there a political aspect to addressing these issues?  Absolutely!  The purpose of politics is to provide organized structures to ensure the stability and welfare of a city, state, and nation.  Unfortunately, the polemical distrust that has emerged in our political system often ignores the reality of our environmental crisis in favor of ideological wars to preserve power structures.  Therefore, when Pope Francis calls for an "ecological conversion," it not only calls for a change in how we see our world, but also for a change of heart in how we see one another, putting aside rhetoric and, in turn, addressing the clear facts in front of us.

Take some time this week and reflect on our call to care for creation.  Through prayer, may we have the courage to make changes in our lives to be more ecologically conscious.  And when we make those changes, let us remember that the primary goal of the care of creation is to build up human dignity for current and future generations, distancing ourselves from ideological polemics that simply perpetuate the crisis we face.

Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

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