In his recent encyclical, Laudato si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis made a survey of Earth and found much to be wanting in how we think about and treat our fellow humans and the environment that sustains us all.
At least one scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory appreciates the pope tackling the subject of our stewardship of Earth.
Managed by Pasadena-based CalTech for NASA, JPL in La Canada Flintridge, California, is best known for its robot spaceships, from Mars rovers to far-ranging planetary explorers.
But JPL also turns its satellites, aircraft and instruments on Earth, studying climate, oceans, earthquakes, water resources and the atmosphere.
In Laudato si, the pontiff discussed “climate change,” the umbrella term for the science addressing causes and effects of current and projected shifts in global dynamics.
For climatologist and oceanographer Dr. William Patzert, the encyclical was a revelation.
Talking in a JPL conference room in late August, Patzert admitted he hasn’t read all of the document.
“I read the part on climate change, and then I skipped the rest,” he said. “Because we are never going to converge, all right? I thought it was a little more radical and a departure from what we’ve seen not only from the Catholic Church but from religious leaders in general. Maybe it’s because he’s a Jesuit.”
Saying he’s “spiritual but not religious,” Patzert was surprised to find himself agreeing with Pope Francis — or at least with how Patzert interprets what the pontiff wrote.
“Let’s say the pope is faith-based and not fact-based,” he said, “but I think he is strongly embedded in the science and generally accepting all the fundamental facts behind global warming and climate change, how it has impacted and what it will do in the future. That’s a dramatic departure.”
In Patzert’s view, Pope Francis represents one of “four pillars” determining the course of how humans deal with the environment: science, which seeks to learn how the world works; business, which brings ideas into reality; politics, which creates the legal and regulatory framework … and one more.
Said Patzert, “But the most influential people in the world are people that are faith-based, because they reach a larger community. … By far, the largest faith-based community in the world is the Catholic Church.
“When [Pope Francis] came out with this encyclical, I thought, essentially what he did is, he aligned himself with the science community, which is often at odds with the business and economic community, and the political community, around the world.
“I always said, the thing that would really push it over the hump in terms of dealing with climate change is if the faith-based leaders around the world get behind this. I thought, in many ways, he did it in a very unequivocal way. Not only that, he tied it to social and economic issues.”
Patzert appreciates the impact of the pope’s words and of faith in general.
“Some of my colleagues,” he said, “have told me that I was the least spiritual person they knew, OK? That might be true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have tremendous respect for the faith-based community and the power of faith in people’s lives – not only that, but also the power of faith in determining the course of human history, both good and bad.
“Anyhow, I was delighted. I was delighted with this pope in many, many ways.”
Patzert has a message for Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez.
“Tell him,” he says, “that I’m a personal friend of Francis spiritually – spiritually, but not religiously, all right? If he and his staff would like to hear what’s going on in the world, I’d love to talk to him.”
The scientist also felt a connection with Pope Francis.
“Isn’t it interesting,” he said, “that I felt he was talking to me. … He definitely has my ear, all right. Some of my colleagues only speak at scientific meetings and gibberish and putting each other to sleep using science talk. I make an effort to get out into the community. Not only that, I like to talk at churches.”
Patzert marveled that “somebody that’s fact-based has so much common ground with one of the most important faith-based leaders on the planet. Somehow we finally got together, him at the end of his career, and me at the end of my career.
“When you get to a certain age, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. To me, I’m going to fertilizer; he’s going to heaven. Good for him, but it gets to a point where it’s time to do the right thing.”
“I think, deep in his heart, when he prays, when he goes to sleep at night, he says the same thing that I do, because I know he’s a moral person, but you can only do so much. When he goes to sleep at night and says his prayers, he sounds like me. That’s what I think.”
Here’s a recent JPL video that shows a flyby of Hurricane Joaquin:
Image: Courtesy William Patzert/JPL