from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Vatican Takes on Climate Change: Making Sense of the Pope’s Encyclical

Pope Francis waves to a crowd on St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on June 13, 2015.

June 18, 2015

Pope Francis waves to a crowd on St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on June 13, 2015.
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Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si” (“Praise Be to You”), is a profoundly important document. It has the potential to shake up the stalled climate change debate in the United States, not least by broadening the definition of what it means to be a “conservative.”

The encyclical arrives at a critical juncture. In five months, world leaders will gather in Paris for the conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where they will devise a climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Last year, governments pledged to make emissions reductions commitments that collectively will prevent the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. It is clear the world will come nowhere close to that target—and that humanity is on a path to ecological catastrophe.

There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around. Most European countries are lagging in meeting targets agreed at Copenhagen in 2009, and big emerging powers—notably China, the world’s largest emitter, and India—continue to resist binding targets.

But the United States is also failing to lead, in part because the leadership of the Republican Party refuses to take global warming seriously. Although 68% of the U.S. public agrees with scientists that climate change is real, the majority of GOP leaders remain in denial. Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio is a glaring offender. Having once introduced climate legislation in the Florida state legislature—arguably the state most vulnerable climate change—he now dismisses claims that “there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate.” The lack of bipartisan consensus on the reality of (much less responses to) global warming has crippled U.S. climate change leadership. The Obama administration has resorted to executive actions of sometimes dubious constitutionality, like defining carbon dioxide emissions as pollutants subject to EPA regulation. But these Band-Aid responses don’t amount to enough. Deadlock will likely continue until Republican leaders feel the heat—in this case, from their constituents.

That’s what makes Francis’s foray into climate change so momentous. As the head of the Catholic Church and Christendom’s most prominent leader, the pope wields unrivaled spiritual and moral authority within conservative U.S. faith communities—including many that tend to vote Republican. Francis’s encyclical does what scientists cannot: offer a rationale for climate change action grounded in theology and morality.

This is not the first time Francis has championed conservation. In his inaugural mass in March 2013, he appealed to world leaders: “Let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” On another recent occasion, he was more blunt, warning: “Safeguard Creation. Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us!”

The new encyclical makes the battle against climate change a moral responsibility for practicing Catholics. The pontiff pulls no punches about the reality of climate change:

It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

He rails against those who seek to deny or ignore the crisis, writing: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

The underlying cause of climate change, Francis argues, is humanity’s proprietary, shortsighted, and indeed sinful approach to God’s creation, in the form of unsustainable “methods of production and consumption” that despoil the planet.

This sister [i.e., Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.

The Pontiff makes the case for combating climate change by linking it to the topic with which, until now, he has been most well-known: the plight of the world’s poor. The two are intertwined, he argues, since the marginalized will suffer most from climate change. The only solution is to be found in a new ethic of global stewardship grounded in reverence for God’s Creation.

Francis’s encyclical has already raised hackles on the right wing of U.S. politics. Anticipating the document, leading Republicans have launched preemptive strikes. Last week Senator James Inhofe said: “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.” Meanwhile, presidential candidate and former senator Rick Santorum said that “the church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is…theology and morality.” And just yesterday, Jeb Bush—considered a frontrunner for the Republican nomination—told an audience: “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” adding, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

What these self-proclaimed conservatives fail to understand is that efforts to mitigate climate change are deeply conservative. The late William F. Buckley, father of modern U.S. conservatism, famously defined the essence of that movement as “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop.” That is, in effect, what Francis is trying to do: to stop us from despoiling the planet.

Buckley, of course, had something else in mind—namely, stopping what he viewed as collectivist schemes at social and political engineering at odds with human liberty. What Francis’s encyclical reminds us, however, is that the selfish pursuit of individual gains can create moral blind spots, impose unfair costs on disadvantaged communities, and degrade resources upon which humanity depend.

Consistent with Catholic social teaching, Francis reminds us that the logics of capitalism--and broader consumer culture--must be tempered by a longer-term ethic of responsible stewardship. That includes not only advancing social justice today but also ensuring the planet’s viability for future generations. This ethic of ecological conservation is about taking care of what we have inherited, rather than eating our seed corn, if you will.

By contrast, the GOP’s infatuation with turbocharged capitalism is anything but conservative. The essence of capitalism, as the economist Joseph Schumpeter observed, is "creative destruction”. Fierce competition—including the sorting of winners and losers—can be good, since it drives innovation and ultimately economic growth. But capitalism can also generate destruction pure and simple, not least to the environment.

Global warming is a classic market “externality”—the fancy term economists use to describe costs are created by firms and consumers but borne by all of society (or indeed the planet). What the modern Republican Party has abandoned is any pretense that the government can and should seek to counter such problems through regulation—by developing incentives, standards and rules that channel market behavior in prosocial directions, without undue constraints on liberty.

This was not always the case. A century ago, reformist Republican Theodore Roosevelt not only railed against the "malefactors" of great wealth who had amassed vast fortunes and risked subverting the political system, but also pioneered environmental conservation and stewardship, including by establishing the National Park Service. One can only imagine TR’s disdain for what has become of his party, most of whose leading lights refuse to acknowledge the human hand in catastrophic climate change.

History aside, can Francis really hope to change the climate debate? Back in the 1930s, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin famously dismissed the Vatican’s power: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” Well, Uncle Joe is long gone, but the Catholic Church endures. Francis’s flock includes 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, including 76.7 million in the United States. His encyclical will carry enormous weight with the faithful—and put pressure on their elected representatives.

Fortuitously, Francis will engage U.S. lawmakers on climate change directly in September, when he becomes the first pope to address a joint session of Congress. (The invitation came, ironically enough, from House majority leader John Boehner—a practicing Catholic and climate change skeptic). With the fate of the earth in the balance, the pope’s historic appearance could not come at a better time or place.

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