For most of us, the Vatican isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking of major players in the environmental activism world. But Pope Francis, who is already delighting many progressives and liberals with his pronouncements on poverty, sexuality and the good life, has also begun speaking out on the urgent need for global environmental protection and action. This past May, in a rare joint meeting of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, the Vatican held a conference called Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility. The wide-ranging and ambitious meeting addressed topics from climate change and social justice to the plight of the urban poor. After the conference, journalists speculated that it was a prelude to the Pope writing an encyclical on environmental sustainability. If such an encyclical were written it would be the first ever to be entirely devoted to environmental themes.

One of the participants at the meeting was Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and a well-known voice in contemporary conversations about both the political realities and historical development of climate change science. At the conference, Oreskes presented a paper titled “What Role for Scientists?” that admonished scientists to speak out about political matters that coincide with their scientific expertise. As she argues in her paper, the notion that scientists have to remain neutral to protect their scientific credibility is a relatively recent one, and in Oreskes’ view is mistaken. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Oreskes about her trip to the Vatican and to discuss her perspective on the relationship between religion and environmental activism.

—Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics


Cosmologics: Was it strange to visit the Vatican as a historian?

Naomi Oreskes: Going to the Vatican is like time traveling. You come into this walled city, with formal guards, with institutions and costumes that have been the same way for hundreds of years. It’s also surreal to come as a guest—one moment you’re standing amongst these huge crowds, and then the next you’re being ushered in through a door into the inner sanctum.

Cosmologics: Did the meeting feel special because it was this particular Pope? He’s name himself after St. Francis, and in general seems to be doing things that are more in line with progressive values?

Naomi Oreskes: There was definitely a sense of hope and optimism, I think, both on my part and for the others at the conference. About a year before the conference I received a very nice, very polite invitation on the idea for this really very ambitious conference that would take on climate change as a social justice issue. Of course, I’m not an expert on Vatican politics or theology, so I can’t say exactly what the outcome will be in terms of those things, but given what Pope Francis has been doing it’s certainly exciting to imagine the possibilities.


But there is a deeply political, anti-intellectual and anti-scientific tradition in American politics that undergirds this kind of hostility.


Cosmologics: Do you think that communities in the US who are hostile to environmental protection (which are often associated with religion) will be affected by the Vatican coming out, essentially in support, for climate change and environmental activism?

Naomi Oreskes: These are really complicated issues politically. But I really don’t think that this is so much a theological issue for many religions, even once you get into the complications of various religious perspectives—not to mention the various American Protestant denominations. But there is a deeply political, anti-intellectual and anti-scientific tradition in American politics that undergirds this kind of hostility. I really couldn’t say if the Vatican coming out about these things would change those perspectives, although of course I would hope so.

Cosmologics: What do you think you brought to the meeting that was unique, given your role as a historian of science?

Naomi Oreskes: In my paper, I talk about the political and social responsibility of scientists, and I’ve become very interested in the current ways in which scientists try to demarcate policy from science. Also, I’ve been working to historicize this shift—because it’s a new, and non-obvious idea that science should remain “pure” from policy recommendations. And scientists talk about this separation in a very absolutist, straight-forward way: as if they will lose their credibility if they give their opinions about policy. So in the paper, I begin with Niels Bohr, since Bohr’s open letter and his intervention with atomic technology is the most famous example of a prominent scientist coming forward to speak about the bigger social, political and existential issues that arise from his work as a scientist. But now we’re in a political context in which scientists have retreated from political recommendations; politics are messy and dirty, so they’ve pulled back.

So I gave this paper at the Vatican, in a nutshell (the proceedings are all online), and then I added a section on science and religion. One of the things that was interesting about the meeting was that there was relatively little discussion about the relationship between science and religion—Americans and Europeans have really bought into the warfare thesis, and so they don’t see an easy way of having these things work together. But from my perspective as a historian, this conflict position isn’t supported by history any more than the scientific neutrality is. And so as I was talking about the importance of being engaged with religion, the religious people were relieved—but the scientists were more nervous.


The thing is, religion is a an extremely complicated thing; and like the state, can be the source of great good or of great not-good.


Cosmologics: What did your colleagues, either in science studies, the history of science, or in the natural sciences, think of your participation in the conference? Were you questioned for getting involved with such an overtly religious institution?

Naomi Oreskes: The thing is, religion is a an extremely complicated thing; and like the state, can be the source of great good or of great not-good. I’m quite interested in how religion can be motivating for people to do the right thing. We know why the conflict thesis between science and religion is wrong—and so for me the idea of going to meet the Pope was really non-problematic, and given the kind of spirit of hopefulness surrounding this particular Pope, the possibility of making positive world policy was something that I was very willing to be part of.

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, her research focuses on the earth and environmental sciences, with a particular interest in scientific consensus and dissent. Her opinion pieces in this area have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Times (London), Nature, Science, The New Statesman, Frankfurter Allgemeine and elsewhere. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik M. Conway was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize, and received the 2011 Watson-David Prize from the History of Science Society. Her latest book, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Futureis an imagining of a world devastated by climate change.


Image of the entrance to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences from Wikimedia Commons


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