As students head back to class for the fall quarter, we asked several faculty members to offer a sneak peek into their courses. Below, Mark Potosnak, associate professor in the College of Science and Health, discusses his new course on Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. The 180-page encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” generated much interest among Catholics and non-Catholics alike when it was released in June.
What were the main themes of the encyclical?
The encyclical on the environment boils down to a few simple messages. First, the science is settled: the Earth is warming, and humans almost certainly are responsible for climate change. Next, the encyclical explains why this is an important issue for Catholics. The pope emphasizes that caring for God’s creation is a core Catholic value. Of course, this care is not unique to the Catholic faith, and the pope emphasized this as a common point with other religions. Climate change is also a moral issue. Although the poor suffer the effects of climate change most severely, the relatively affluent are the ones primarily responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. A final message is that we need to turn away from our culture of consumption.
Why is Pope Francis’ stance on climate change important? How is it different from previous statements from the Catholic Church?
Since so many people have come to see individual’s views on climate change as a political litmus test, the pope is creating an opportunity to recast the conversation. Teaching that climate change should be considered within a moral framework puts the conversation on a new level. That said, this is not a new view for the church. The encyclical relies on previous teachings, especially from the two previous popes and from bishops’ groups around the world. What is new is the primacy of the issue: climate change and care for the environment is now thrust forward for Catholics and others interested in the pope’s message.
What are the objectives for your course?
I want the students to examine the encyclical from a variety of perspectives. There is obviously the religious dimension to consider, but the pope addressed the encyclical to all people and there are ways to approach the document apart from its religious impact. Science is difficult to communicate under the best of circumstances, and climate change is particularly tricky. The climate system is complex, and the media has often struggled to explain scientific consensus and uncertainty. In this course, we’re asking, “How does the encyclical approach these problems of climate change communication?”
During the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach students the science of climate change at DePaul and several other institutions. Many students were fascinated by the material, but through formal and informal feedback, I realized students wanted to know more about the issue beyond the science. The idea of this yearning was reinforced when I read some recent studies in communication and cultural cognition. Communication specialists suggest that appealing to morals and religion is one way to persuade climate change skeptics. Like many of the problems my CSH colleagues work on, climate change requires an interdisciplinary approach.
We’re also exploring questions raised by the moral framework specified in the encyclical. Are there any climate change solutions that are particularly in line with the framework? Are there any proposed solutions that would work against the framework? For example, developed countries are responsible for a large quantity of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere, so how much burden of reduction should be placed on developing countries like India and China? I’m also making sure there is intellectual space in the class for students to suggest and follow up their own lines of inquiry.
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