The Pope's political earthquake

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.”

Is that enough to make conservatives nervous? In another section, his thoughts drift to the future, and the ominous possibility that corporations may seek to control access to water, which will have become a more limited, and expensive, resource. By forcefully arguing that water is a basic and universal human right, the encyclical takes a strong stand on an important issue. That right is not yet clearly established (it was left out of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but endorsed by the United Nations in 2010). After today, it might be.