Prof. Hans Schellnhuber: climate science and the “population problem”

The inclusion of Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber on the panel that launched the encyclical letter Laudato Si has sparked controversy about his approach to climate science and accusations that he supports population control.

Professor Schellnhuber is the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and was an influential figure during the preparation of Laudato Si. As well as being consulted by the Vatican during the preparation of the document he was also chosen to deliver an intervention at the encyclical’s official launch on Thursday 18th June. Earlier in the week it had been announced that he had been appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Francis.

Climate Science

Earlier this week, in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Schellnhuber spoke of his influence on the direction of the encyclical. He said:

“It was hard work, to prepare the insights of science in such a way that now people in the Vatican understand the climate problem much better.”

He continued:

“The worry of us scientists was, of course, that the text would accept a false balance – i.e., that it would not present clearly the current state of research concerning climate issues, but only carefully maneuver and merely declare that the one side says this, and the other side says that – according the motto ‘One does not know anything precise, but the principle of prevention demands that one acts.'”

Last week the Washington Post reported that Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, intervened to block the participation of French scientist Philippe de Larminat in a Vatican seminar on climate change. De Larminat, who does not accept that climate change is caused by human activity, was invited to the April seminar by Cardinal Turkson, one of main drafters of the encyclical, but his participation was, according to the Washington Post, “effectively vetoed” by Sorondo.

Professor Schellnhuber is said to have been “stunned” that de Larminat had almost been admitted to the seminar. The Washington Post quotes him as saying that it showed that “even within the Vatican, there were some people who would like to see something that presented both sides.” Presenting both sides of the argument is clearly not acceptable to Schellnhuber.

Schellnhuber is also associated with the controversial “gaia principle.” The “gaia principle” proposes that both living and non-living beings on Earth interact to form self-regulating system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. This system is considered to be a living being in its own right, with even some degree of consciousness.

In “‘Earth system’ analysis and the second Copernican revolution”, (Nature, 1999) Schellnhuber spoke of “unravelling the mysteries of the Earthphysique, or “Gaias body”.

He wrote:

“Ecosphere science is therefore coming of age, lending respectability to its romantic companion, Gaia theory, as pioneered by Lovelock and Margulis. This hotly debated geophysiological’ approach to Earth-system analysis argues that the biosphere contributes in an almost cognizant way to self-regulating feedback mechanisms that have kept the Earths surface environment stable and habitable for life.”

Gaia theory is often associated with a hostile attitude towards human activity, which is considered a perpetual threat to the earth’s ecosystem.

“Climbing the co-evolution ladder” (Nature, 2004), an article co-authored by Schellnhuber, seems to extend this hostile attitude even to “the first organisms” which “would have drained the environment of energetically and structurally useful compounds and replaced them with degraded waste products.”

This view of living creatures as a potential threat to the planet certainly extends to human beings. The authors write that “modern civilization already perturbs – if not dominates – various large-scale processes and components of the planet.”

They continue with the suggestion this is “the latest step on the grand co-evolutionary ladder of entwined transitions of information and environment.”

This “concept of entwined evolution” leads the authors to adopt a depressing view of the future. It “may reveal where we are ultimately heading – towards Solaris or something even scarier.”

Solaris, they remind us, is “Stanislav Lems science-fiction master-piece” that:

 tells the gripping — and scary — story of a super-intelligent super-organism that has transmuted into a vast ocean covering most of the surface of a distant planet. Thus information-processing (that is, active) life and force-driven (that is, passive) environment have finally merged into a single entity.”

The negative view of life and creation represented by this article is radically different from that of the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that God made the world, and all living creatures, according to his will and design and that everything he created is “very good” (Gen 1:31). The entire universe is subject to God’s merciful providence and will find its culmination in the Second Coming of Christ and the revealing of “new heavens and a new earth” (1 Pet 3:13).

The Catholic view of creation welcomes and rejoices in new life; the “Gaia” approach to creation leads to suspicion and hostility towards new life, often manifesting itself in attempts at population control.

Population control

Last week many commentators, including Voice of the Family, drew attention to comments made by Professor Schellnhuber about human population at the 2009 Copenhagan Climate Conference.

The New York Times reported that Schellnhuber told the conference that if the temperature of the earth rose by nine degrees Fahrenheit the human population would be devastated.

He continued:

“In a very cynical way, it’s a triumph for science because at last we have stabilized something –- namely the estimates for the carrying capacity of the planet, namely below 1 billion people.”

In an interview with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register Schellnhuber clarifed his comments and insisted that they should not be interpreted as support for population control. He asserted that he has never  “spoken in favor of population-control measures” and has “always said the climate problem is completely independent of the population problem.” However, his attempt to explain his position raises more questions than it answers.

In the following comment, available here on youtube (in German), Professor Schellnhuber seems to connect the “climate problem” with the “population problem” when he states:

“The earth likely will be populated by at least 9 billion people by 2050. You have to imagine that these people will reach an average level of consumption that Portugal has, one of the poorer countries in Europe. When you imagine that if all these 9 billion people claim all these resources, then the earth will explode.”

In fact, during his interview with Pentin, when he speaks about the perceived “population problem”  he immediately proceeds to propose a solution to that “problem” when he states:

“If you want to reduce human population, there are wonderful means: Improve the education of girls and young women. Then the demographic transition will be a little bit faster, and, as Cardinal Turkson said, you will enhance human capital and have the emancipation of many people on Earth. So I subscribe to a good education, and that’s the only way of population strategy I would support.”

It is reasonable to conclude from these comments that Schellnhuber thinks that this “demographic transition”, presumably to a lower population or at least slowed population growth, is desireable. “Demographic transition” he suggests “will enhance human capital” and lead to “the emancipation of many people on Earth”.

The mechanism by which improving the education of girls and women leads to reduction of the birth rate is explained by Jeffrey Sachs in his new book The Age of Sustainable Development (New York, 2015) Sachs is the special adviser to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, a leading advocate of population control and an influential figure in the Vatican over the last couple of years.

Sachs explains that the “most important single step” in “reducing high fertility rates” is “to help young girls stay in school. They will marry later, have fewer children, and be more oriented toward the workforce. They and their husbands will choose voluntarily to have many fewer children, a voluntary reduction of high TFR [total fertility rates] that has already occurred in most other places in the world.”

They will of course, in most cases, have fewer children through the use contraception, including the use of abortifacient contraceptives.

Schellnhuber’s “wonderful means” to “reduce human population” will surely amount, in the end, to contraception and abortion. Schellnhuber’s remarks that also imply that educated women will want fewer children that uneducated women. The suggestion that small families are an advance for society in comparison to large families stands contrary to the Church’s obedience to God’s command, given in Genesis 1:28, that mankind must “increase and multiply, and fill the earth”.

It is also of note that Schellnhuber is a full member of the Club of Rome, which describes itself as “a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity.”

During its foundational event in 1968 in Rome it began an international campaign to reduce the world’s population. The book-length report, Limits of Growth, which was written for the Club of Rome in 1972, was one of the starting points for the worldwide attempt to reduce the population by the aggressive promotion of contraception and abortion. As recently as 2009, the Club of Rome has reaffirmed that “the global issues which were the focus of the 1972 Report, ‘Limits to Growth’ are even more severe and urgent today.”

A recent Club of Rome publication, entitled What was the message of ‘Limits to Growth’ , states:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continues unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

The document also states that “the global population and economy has continued to grow more or less as expected in 1970”, which means that:

“the real world has moved into overshot… According to the best estimates of today, the world moved into aggregate overshoot in the middle 1980s. This is most commonly accepted when related to the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, but other dimensions of human activity have also moved into unsustainable territory.”

In such ways the Club of Rome continues to promote the myth of overpopulation, which has led to death and suffering for an uncountable number of many of the most vulnerable members of the human family.

Given Schellnhuber’s views on the “population problem” and his membership of the Club of Rome, many Catholics are understandably seriously concerned by his appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and his participation in the preparation and launch of the encyclical letter Laudato Si.