Quotes of the day

Many of the worst fears of the climate-deniers will be fulfilled by the encyclical, and then some. Francis does not quite name names, but he calls out the fossil-fuel extractors, and cites coal and oil as especially bad (gas not quite as much). He dislikes the way our lives have been shaped around cars, asphalt and cement. He likes solar energy. He ridicules the arrogance with which the deniers have stifled debate. He sees the effects of this arrogance everywhere—in oceans that are daily becoming more acidified, denying poor fishermen their livelihood; in vanishing forests; in genetically modified crops that dominate local strains; and in a tendency toward “monoculture” around the world, including in our politics. One of the more depressing passages includes his list of all the promising international agreements that have failed for lack of support from the leaders who signed them.

It will be tempting to many of the deniers to dismiss the encyclical as something menacing and foreign—perhaps even Communist. There are many passages that go beyond environmental concerns to criticize our entire system of production and consumption. At times, it does read like a leftist critique of capitalism, and its passion breathes the Amazonian air of the Latin American church that Francis came from. But it’s a passion for a well-ordered world, in which capitalism works better, for more people, with less damage. One section, lamenting that we did not use the financial crisis of 2008 to build a better-regulated system, almost reads like something from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook. At other times, his writing would not be out of place in a manual from the New Deal, as he celebrates the dignity of manual labor, and the self-respect that comes from work. Sometimes, he almost sounds like John Lennon, wondering if we might think beyond borders, and think of ourselves as “one people living in a common home.”


If the science is correct, then how would the church’s silence in obeisance to conservative climate skepticism enhance its credibility? After all, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced in 2014 that the scientific consensus that “climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause” is as airtight as the “science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases.”…

[T]he potential error of the Vatican advocating for measures to combat climate change based on scientific consensus is far less dangerous than the error of disregarding that consensus. Moreover, advocating for the care of God’s creation actually does fit squarely in the pontiff’s bailiwick. Pope Benedict XVI was dubbed the “green pope” for his rallying cries to protect the environment, and Pope John Paul II spoke powerfully of “ecological responsibility.”

Now, Pope Francis is elevating the issue with the encyclical. Why? A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found an interesting division among U.S. Catholics on the issue of climate change:White Catholics are twice as likely as Hispanic Catholics to say climate change is not happening, whereas Hispanic Catholics are far more likely than white Catholics (61% to 39%) to say that scientists agree human activity is responsible for increasing temperatures on earth.Hispanic Catholics are also three times more likely to believe they’ll be personally impacted by climate change.


Some [U.S. bishops] said they were wary about getting the church enmeshed in the debate over climate change, a contentious issue in the United States. They also expressed concern about allying with environmentalists, some of whom promote population control as a remedy, since the church sees abortion and contraception as great evils.

Some bishops said they had received hate mail from Catholics skeptical of climate change. That has added to the bishops’ hesitation and confusion on the topic.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, said that at the meeting on Thursday, when the bishops discussed their top priorities for the coming years, “nobody mentioned the environment.”…

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., who is chairman of the committee on international justice and peace, said he would remind “so-called serious Catholics” who might want to dismiss the encyclical for political reasons that church teaching was not “Hints from Heloise.”


The pope’s 192-page call to action Thursday, which blames the burning of fossil fuels and human activity for climate change, is the latest example of how Francis has become part of the political debate in a season in which no fewer than five Catholics may seek the Republican presidential nomination…

“Essentially, what this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party,” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday, using the name for such a document from the pope. “That’s what it is. How else do you interpret it when the pope comes out and sounds like Al Gore on global warming and climate change?”…

“I respect the pope. I think he’s an incredible leader, but I think it’s better to solve this problem in the political realm,” Bush said…

For Republicans, the dilemma posed by Francis is compounded by the fact that many on their side have argued that religious faith should have a greater role in politics. In 2012, Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum made his own trip to Houston to argue that Kennedy had been wrong.


The point of these efforts was to convince Catholic members of the American conservative movement that they didn’t have to choose: a good Catholic could be a good Republican and a good Republican could be a good Catholic. Indeed, it wasn’t just that there was no tension between Catholicism and American conservatism; it was that each implied the other. Symbiosis, conciliation, and synthesis were the order of the day.

Pope Francis has brought that era to an end. Whereas John Paul liked to talk about the Republican-friendly concept of subsidiarity (having the most local possible public authority handle the administration of social services and welfare), Francis is quite comfortable endorsing state action to advance the common good and address significant social and economic problems. And whereas John Paul loudly denounced the “culture of death” (abortion, euthanasia) and Benedict railed against an incipient “dictatorship of relativism,” both of which echoed concerns of the American religious right, Francis speaks more quietly and in a more nuanced way about social issues, while leading with issues on which the Catholic Church and the Republican Party have always been farthest apart — poverty, inequality, the damage wrought by free-market ideology, and now climate change and related environmental concerns.

All of which has made things much more complicated for Catholic members of the GOP, forcing them, on some issues at least, to choose between religious and political allegiances. That’s not a fun position to be in, especially when Republicans have grown accustomed to thinking of the allegiances being not just compatible but self-reinforcing and electorally beneficial. The result can be painful to watch, as some Republicans who once acted like Catholic triumphalists dismiss the current pontiff’s ideas and arguments, while others turn themselves into contortionists trying to make it all hang together.


Maybe it would be truer to say Pope Francis has tried to annex one of the newer religions, that of global warming, to Catholic liturgy, though this would also paint a sorry picture of his political judgment. For if anything has been demonstrated over the past three decades, it’s that moral hectoring of voters does not produce notable progress on this vexing issue…

To the real problem he offers no answer except for humans to improve themselves. Anything that the political process spits out in response to uncertain climate fears will be more effective in redistributing resources among lobbying groups than in doing anything about climate…

The biggest impact, by default and not because we ordained it, will come from technological change and a competitive economy’s search for efficiency, to which this anti-economic pope gives so little credit.

And a good thing too, since the church has spent 2,000 years trying to treat the ills of human nature and yet those ills persist.


I find nothing objectionable about the pope’s moralizing tone and language of “sin.” But his skepticism about market-based solutions to climate change is rooted in a misunderstanding. A market-based approach to controlling greenhouse-gas emissions — through carbon taxes or tradable emissions permits — does, in fact, reflect moral conviction. The pope gets carried away condemning the “efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy,” overlooking the fact that efficiency, in this context, is a moral principle…

In the introduction, Francis addresses the work not just to Catholics but to all of humanity — in recognition of the fact that climate change is a global problem and will require the cooperation of all peoples, of all faiths, to resolve. But he then appeals to a conception of the common good that is specifically Christian, and criticizes markets on the grounds that they do not promote that conception.

Here he reveals the limitations of his own approach. The problem of climate change is so urgent that we cannot wait around for people to come to some kind of spiritual agreement. What we can demand, here and now, is that people pay the full cost that their consumption imposes on others, including future generations.


“Political institutions and various other social groups are also entrusted with helping to raise people’s awareness. So too is the Church.” Fair enough, but the Church, like any other institution, has an ethical obligation to do so in an intellectually rigorous fashion, and here, with respect, the pope fails, writing: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.” This is inconsistent with science in many ways, the most obvious of them being that the operating consensus among climate scientists is far from a doomsday scenario — models have consistently offered an estimate of about 2 degrees’ warming a century hence. That would impose real environmental costs and require difficult choices regarding mitigation, but it is not what the pope here is contemplating —  literally the end of the world, a scenario that the Catholic Church has always envisioned happening by other means. Beyond that, the pope’s focus on lifestyles and consumption ignores the fact that demographers predict that the world’s population will begin declining only 40 years from now, peaking in 2055. That will probably relieve some of the demands on the planet’s physical resources — and present us with an entirely new set of social problems that the pope apparently has not contemplated…

The rich world should indeed feel itself morally obliged to help the world’s poor. It must do this by helping them develop their economies, along lines the pope rejects, to enable higher levels consumption — of the sort the pope criticizes. We should appreciate that human dignity has in all observed cases been better served by the private-property regime that alarms the pope than by the political-discipline model that holds the property right to be a usufruct granted by states and princes and subject to endless revision at their whim. And when considering the specific question of global warming, we must face the reality that all the preventative strategies currently under consideration would impose radical costs on the compliant while the noncompliant are nearly certain to render those measures ineffective.


Laudato si’ is a throwback to the limits-to-growth debate of the early 1970s. The idea of unlimited growth, says the pope, is based on the lie (menzogna in the original Italian) that there is “an infinite supply of the earth’s goods,” demonstrating the pope’s fallibility when it comes to understanding economics and innovation. As John Paul II wrote, in developed countries, wealth is about the possession of know-how, technology, and skill — but the current pope is a fan of the precautionary principle, which would block technological advance. The pope suggests containing economic growth by “setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.” It is the Club of Rome (a think tank founded in 1968 to limit population growth and “to stop the suicidal roller coaster man now rides”) without abortion. Self-evidently, population growth without economic growth can only result in growing immiserization…

Parts of the encyclical read like a reactionary diatribe against industrialization and the modern world. “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” the pope says. He is against urbanization (“we were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal”), the culture of consumerism (prioritizing “short-term gain and private interest”), social media (“their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely”), and even newer and more powerful air-conditioning irresponsibly promoted by businesses stimulating ever greater demand (“an outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive”). Perhaps the pope realized he’d overdone it. “Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” he asks, after quoting John Paul II on the benefits of science and technology and his immediate predecessor on mankind’s urge to overcome our material limitations.

Much of the pope’s prescription is reheated rhetoric from the 1970s and the U.N.-sponsored New International Economic Order on systems of governance for the “global commons” and the North’s exploitation of the South’s resources. The Declaration on the Establishment of the New International Order portrays unregulated businesses as predatory and destructive. Technology linked to business interests promotes the throwaway society, it says. Unlike nature, which recycles, “we have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations.”


All of these errors are perfectly predictable, since Francis is just repeating what he has heard from mainstream environmentalists and international green activists. The problem is that those are apparently the only people he is listening to. There is vigorous debate on all of these issues, and it is easy to find serious alternative views and counterarguments, ranging from skeptics who don’t think catastrophic global warming is happening, to those like Bjorn Lomborg, who think it is happening but that other problems are easier to fix and a far higher priority.

The real problem with the pope’s encyclical is how he closes himself off to these arguments, poisoning the well by attributing them to “obstructionist attitudes,” which “range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation, or blind confidence in technical solutions.” Notice that “reasoned disagreement” or “scientific skepticism” aren’t offered as possibilities. Even worse, he indulges in a kind of anti-business conspiracy theory: “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.” So Wall Street and Big Oil are the only forces holding us back.

Pope Francis has sealed himself off in an ideological bubble that is harder and more impenetrable than the Popemobile. He refuses to recognize that there are alternative ideas outside the leftist orthodoxy on capitalism and the environment. The result is a sense that I’ve never quite gotten before from a papal encyclical: the sense of the pope as a narrow ideologue, captive to a relatively recent political fad.


The same people who are unwilling to give the pope the time of day on more central moral matters, like the dignity of life, are now attributing to him an authority that might have made Pope Innocent III, who challenged kings, blush…

If saving the planet, or our souls, depends on giving up air conditioning or cars, we are all indeed on the road to perdition. The pope at one point favorably cites the example of the desert monks. But while living a life of contemplation in the middle of nowhere suited St. Anthony of Egypt just fine — he is reputed to have lived to 105 — most of us aren’t spiritual superheroes, nor does monasticism as a general matter tell us anything useful about improving the lives of the poor.

While the pope pays lip service to technological advances, he doesn’t truly appreciate their wonders. The Industrial Revolution was one of the greatest boons to humankind. Consider the unrelieved misery — the disease, the poverty, the illiteracy — before around 1800, when if you weren’t an aristocrat, a general, or a bishop, your life was probably nasty, brutish and short. Mass industrialization launched the world on a radically different material trajectory…

For all that the pope portrays modern development as a long exercise in environmental devastation, it is the advanced countries that have the cleanest water and air, and are best prepared to adapt their way around any far-off environmental challenges. The pope is right to be skeptical of a blind-faith in technological fixes. Of course they can’t cure what ails the human soul; they can solve seemingly insuperable problems. Perhaps Francis should put a visit to the dikes of Holland on his next itinerary.


Christianity’s end-of-worldism is getting a new airing in the apocalypse obsession of greens, who warn of an eco-unfriendly End of Days. Its promise of Godly judgement for our wicked ways has been replaced by greens’ promise that we’ll one day be judged for our planetary destructiveness. A leading British green has fantasised about “international criminal tribunals” for climate-change deniers, who will be “partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths.”

The Word of God has become the authority of The Science (greens always say “The” before “Science,” to signal its definitiveness.) “Science has spoken,” said Ban Ki-Moon last year, in a speech on why we should all obsess over climate change, just as Catholics insist the “Lord has spoken” so STFU. Greens breathe life back into Catholic guilt, too, urging us to feel bad about everything from flying abroad to eating strawberries out of season. Carbon-calculating, where people measure their every single production of carbon, is like Catholic guilt on steroids…

Indeed, the most striking passage in his encyclical is when he celebrates environmentalism for potentially bringing to an end the era of progress: “Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach. We see increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature.” The honesty here is refreshing: the Pope likes the green stuff because it winds back modernity; it reins in the moment in history when we believed in progress and human power.

He’s talking about the Enlightenment, in essence. About that revolution in ideas when philosophers and scientists challenged the mysticism of the Church and said mankind should explore his surroundings, extract nature’s secrets, dare to know, dare to discover. That radical moment which led to us unlocking the long-dormant sunlight in coal to power the Industrial Revolution: which allowed us to fly; which helped us discover the fantastic secrets hidden in uranium, which earlier generations only used to dye glass yellow but which we have used to create so much energy that even God was probably bowled over. He’s talking about humanity playing God, which, as God’s spokesman, he isn’t happy about.