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The Alaska scientist who teaches the Catholic Church about climate change

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 23, 2015

Glenn Juday, a devout Roman Catholic and an ecologist, had been working on climate education within the Roman Catholic Church for years when Pope Francis issued an doctrinal statement on the environment this spring in the form of an official letter to clergy about climate change.

"That was the big kahuna we were thinking about at the time we were launching the Catholic Climate Covenant efforts," said Juday, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. From 2010 to 2012 Juday served as lead scientist and trainer for Catholic Climate Covenant, a national advocacy organization that inserts Catholic voices into the conversation on climate change and pushes for the church to take an active role in the issue.

His hope has been that the church will one day integrate lessons from science on "caring for creation" into the curriculum for the training of priests. With the release of the encyclical titled "Laudato Si," the pope "just collapsed that process into a vastly shorter time frame then would happen otherwise," Juday said.

Juday will be far away from the fanfare this week as Pope Francis visits Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. But perhaps that is for the better because Juday prefers to receive the pontifical word as directly as possible, unadulterated by the lens of the secular media.

He quotes at length from the environmental encyclical, particularly emphasizing the first line of section 23, "The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all."

In nearly 38,000 words, Pope Francis casts his position on the environment as a logical conclusion of the church's teachings and as a continuation of the legacy of the previous pope.

But besides theology, the text contains science, including a discussion of the importance of the forest to biodiversity, a focus of Juday's career. "I was stunned when I saw it," Juday said.

The pope also demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the impact of carbon emissions in the Arctic, pointing to how warming can lead to "the decomposition of frozen organic material (which) can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide."

"I don't think there's ever been a papal statement about permafrost," Juday said.

Juday qualifies his excitement and surprise about the encyclical, saying that the scientific tradition has always been intrinsically tied to the Catholic Church.

"The reason that people at a university are called professors is because of how the university started as a function of the church," he said. "As was typical of the time, when you did something that was really important you took an oath. You professed to teach only the truth. That has been paramount for me my whole career."

Catholic Climate Covenant's executive director, Dan Misleh, praises Juday as a "scientist he turns to" for advice and knowledge.

One the of early initiatives of Misleh's organization in 2010 was to train church leaders as "Catholic Climate Ambassadors." Juday, who provided scientific knowledge, was paired with a theologian who specializes in the church's teachings on environmental stewardship. Senior members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops such as Bishop William Skylstad and Bishop Stephen Blaire attended a training with Juday.

"Hearing the science from a Catholic who is deeply rooted in his faith does make a difference" to religious leaders and churchgoers, Misleh said. But Catholic Climate Covenant is also active in the secular world of college campuses, opinion pages of national newspapers and Congress.

Acknowledging that many see a chasm between faith and science, Juday said he finds himself "talking to the church about science and talking to scientists about religion."

Most recently, he gave three presentations on Laudato Si in front of members of the Diocese of Fairbanks.

The reactions to the presentations vary, from environmentally minded Catholics who breathe a sigh of relief that their views are being aired, to Catholics who say the pope should not wade into political matters such as climate change.

The latter group includes such presidential hopefuls as Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum.

But many in Juday's audience have simply been glad to be more educated, he said.

Now, he's fundraising to travel with Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski to three dozen rural parishes and continue his teaching.

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