People must change their minds, heart and actions, and not abuse water.

People must change their minds, heart and actions, and not abuse water.

March 31, 2014

There have been five mass extinctions in the last 540 million years. Science tells us a sixth is now underway.

But only faith can tell us how we will live through it.

The Jesuits of Regis College gathered about 100 people on United Nations World Water Day, March 22, to think and pray about climate change, water and human responsibility.

Part of the graduate faculty of theology's regular Windows on Theology series of public seminars, the World Water Day event brought science writer Alanna Mitchell, theologian Dennis Patrick O'Hara and Jesuit ecologist Father John McCarthy together to explore the moral and spiritual side of our relationship with creation.

"When it comes to the whole question of the environment and ecology – these intractable problems, these wicked problems – it's really about the movement of the human heart," said McCarthy.


Mitchell explained the basic science behind how human activity is changing the chemistry of the world's oceans. Research shows about a 30 per cent increase in the acidity (ph levels) of sea water since the industrial revolution began burning large amounts of fossil fuels.

At current and projected levels of fossil fuel consumption, ocean ph levels will have increased 150 per cent between 1750 and 2050.

Alanna Mitchell

Alanna Mitchell

At the same time, algae blooms caused by large amounts of fertilizer washing into oceans have created dead zones, including an area at the mouth of the Mississippi River scientists have named "the blob."

Huge explosions of plant life in the Gulf of Mexico lead to an equal explosion of dead plant matter which absorbs oxygen. Inside the blob and other areas like it around the globe, fish can't breathe.

The human-driven changes to the oceans don't end with acidification and depleted oxygen levels.

"We're heating up, not only the air, but also the water," said Mitchell. "The ocean has become warm, breathless and sour."

There are fewer and fewer fish near the equator simply because the water is too hot. Fish that used to be found in the Mediterranean are now found off the coast of Plymouth, England.

"Fish are fleeing," Mitchell said. "This web of life is being torn."

Of all the mass extinctions in the geologic history of the planet, the one closest to what scientists are documenting today happened 252 million years ago. Known in the scientific literature as "The Great Dying," it killed 90 per cent of species on the planet because the oceans warmed up very quickly.

Scientists have already connected the warming oceans with human deaths. The drought in the Horn of Africa over the last decade is directly attributable to weather patterns that have changed with the warming of the oceans.

"You can trace a line through the science right to the death of millions of people," Mitchell said.

Whether Paris will be a coastal city or whether you will soon need scuba gear to visit Florida will depend on our willingness to confront the reality of climate change, said Dennis Patrick O'Hara, moral theologian at University of St. Michael's College and director of the Elliot Allen Institute for Ecology and Theology.

Greg Kennedy

Greg Kennedy

"It's a matter of will. It's not a matter of finding new solutions," he said. For Catholics, it begins with the will to take Church teaching on the environment seriously.


A long list of statements on the environment by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis all point to the moral imperative of caring for the environment. But Catholics also have to evangelize on the question of the environment, said O'Hara.

"We need to change hearts, we need to change minds, we need to change imaginations," he said.

Knowing that we are changing the chemistry of the world's oceans, which constitute 99 per cent of the Earth's biotic living space, ought to immediately strike at the heart of Catholics, said seminar organizer Greg Kennedy, a Jesuit scholar whose PhD thesis was called The Ontology of Trash.

"It comes down to the sacramental significance of water," he said.

Catholics need to be able to understand the science of climate change and connect it with their faith.

"Science properly done gives glory to God," said Kennedy. "Science can give us the how and the what, but it doesn't give us the why - even less so the destiny, the end of all this."

The hard part is overcoming a feeling of helplessness, said Regis College and St. Augustine's Seminary philosophy professor Sean Mulrooney.

"I feel ill-informed and clueless as to what to do," he said. "It's a complicated world and I can't be expected to be a specialist in everything."


Mulrooney said he came to the seminar on his day off because he knows that saying he feels helpless is no excuse.

"Ethics isn't very difficult. I think it's very simple actually," Mulrooney said. "If you're throwing garbage into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most fecund places on Earth, and it's going dead – well, you know you're doing something wrong."