An Encylical on Climate change, what we wish Pope Francis would say

In previous post we made some predictions about what Pope Francis would say about “climate change”. Although we really wish he would write about something else, what follows is what we wish he would say ( written in my best “Vatican-ese”). Alas he has not called to ask, but I offer it here since I don’t think anything that ranges far afield from the following would have any value, and most of what the Church could say with authority is contained in what follows.


To the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, and all the lay Faithful of the Catholic Church:
The Supreme Pontiff wishes to address the important issue of climate change. Let us first outline the problem:

As many of you know the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in 2007, and subsequent reports on the phenomena of global climate change. Using data from multiple sources climate experts have concluded that the overall average temperature of the Earth is increasing. The overall magnitude of this increase is fairly small measuring only about 0.6 degrees centigrade over the last century, however the rate of rise appears to be increasing, and in the opinion of many, even most scientists, it is correlated to the release of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, most of the CO2 being related to the increased use of fossil fuels. In the view of many, perhaps most scientists even relatively small changes in the average global temperature can have profound consequences on the environment which might be quite harmful.
The precise effect of the continued release of CO2 into the atmosphere is complex since multiple factors can offset this effect. One recent study suggests that the CO2 promotes increased growth of tropical rain forests, which will consume some of the excess greenhouse gas for example. We mention this not to suggest this kind of thing is adequate to neutralize such an increase in CO2, but merely to demonstrate that the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere can have multiple effects that make predicting the overall impact on the environment a complex endeavor. There are a myriad of other factors involving the potential interaction of  increased CO2 production with other atmospheric phenomena that  determine the exact amount of any global temperature change and the consequent effects of this change. Scientists have sophisticated mathematical models that attempt to account for and predict these changes. No matter how sophisticated however there are limitations in the accuracy of any model, and the predictions made can be erroneous. For example as the widely regarded scientific journal “Nature” has reported, current models are having difficulty accounting for the lack of significant warming over the last 16 years, in spite of predictions by most models of the contrary. No doubt scientists will develop theories to account for these phenomena.

It is laudable that man as steward of creation use his intellect to attempt to understand such phenomena and indeed to respond to them, by appropriate means, in order to forestall any harmful effects that might adversely impact the human condition. Indeed many kinds of solutions have been proposed to limit the ongoing production of greenhouse gases involving legal treaties and governmental regulation of energy use in the various countries of the world. The utility of the various responses gives rise to a number of complex questions. Policies designed to limit energy use or promote alternative sources of energy may have multiple effects, some of which are unintended. For example schemes to limit energy use may drive up the costs of energy and impact the economies of many countries. Given the complex interconnectedness of the global economy it is hard to say such “side effects” will not affect the world’s poor adversely. In any case this has lead to much acrimonious debate, and unfortunate political polarization between those who believe the changes in climate are severe, and favor significant governmental intervention to limit these changes, versus others who while in the minority, express concerns that either the changes in climate are overstated or even if not overstated, that some of the proposed remedies would cause severe harm to the economies of nations resulting in an increase in human suffering.

What can the Church add to this debate? In one sense it can add very little. The primary role of the Church is to assist men in achieving eternal life, and this is done by exhorting them to follow the Law of Christ, and fortifying them by administering his sacraments. This is not obviously connected to the problem of “climate change”. On the other hand something an issue this profound, potentially affecting all of humanity, deeply concerns the Church since she is mother of all the faithful, and it is the will of her master, our Lord, Jesus Christ, that she seek the good of all, it seems appropriate that we speak to this problem. How can the Church do this in a way that will promote dialog and aid her children?

First let us specifically state what the Church cannot do, and more specifically what I cannot do as Supreme Pontiff. She cannot answer the question of whether global warming is occurring, and the specific utility of any proposed solution in terms of its overall benefit or harm. What she can do is outline what are the overall moral duties of those who seek to address this problem. This really touches on the most basic requirements of charity and the natural law, but the call to even the basic requirements of the moral life needs to be forever repeated given our fallen human nature.
It is clear that the Church cannot pronounce on the accuracy of scientific predictions regarding climate change, its severity or the resultant consequences of such change. These are purely technical questions which must be evaluated by scientific experts using the tools they have at their disposal. If the Church goes beyond this competence or even appears to do so it risks misleading her children and indirectly detracting from her central message of salvation. Christ promises us to guide the Church infallibly in providing the means to salvation. This means we are protected from error in preaching on morals or the things God has chosen to reveal to us. God in his wisdom has the left understanding of the workings of nature to human ingenuity and so the answers to purely scientific questions are something outside the mandate of the Church, and we have no special insight into such questions.

There are grave moral questions involved in this problem which we can speak to however. These can be broken into 2 basic categories. All people have a duty to seek the truth without regard to more ignoble concerns, and all people must make sure our solutions to this grave problem are morally upright, with a goal of rigorously seeking the common good, not profit, fame or political power for their own sake.

Addressing our first concern, it should be obvious that scientists and policy makers should be engaged in seeking the truth. Thus the proponents of climate change should not vilify, suppress or otherwise personally impugn the integrity of those who criticize the accuracy of the theory, the adequacy of the models that predict temperature change or similar things. The same could of course be said about the duties of those who dispute the findings of proponents of the current paradigm of climate change. Given that proponents are in the majority the opportunity to suppress countervailing views is greater for proponents that opponents of the theory. We note the dismaying ad hominem attacks on those who dispute the current theory as merely “climate deniers”, and radical calls that they be imprisoned or suppressed. It should also be clear that all of the assertions regarding the problem of climate change should be judged on their merits and faulty arguments should be countered in an appropriate manner using the typical reliance on evidence and facts that scientists pride themselves on. Of course it goes without saying that manipulation or lying about data in order to push a particular view or promote a particular favored policy is clearly sinful, and given the gravity and importance of the topic, if fully voluntary might be gravely sinful. This kind of dishonesty earns vigorous condemnation from every quarter, and all men have a duty to expose it for the evil it is. Similarly discrediting an opponent based on unsubstantiated personal attacks can amount to the grave sin of rash judgment or calumny. These kinds of actions must be condemned.


A certain amount of humility regarding such a complex and multifaceted issue seems in order here. It has been the history of science that views once held at a given time by the vast majority of scientists have later been shown to be false. One recalls the widespread belief that the earth was bathed in an invisible “ether” that permeated the universe and through which light waves traveled, this idea famously being shown false by Einstein’s special theory of relativity.  One also thinks of the many ideas of Freud regarding the utility of psychoanalysis which while once a dominant theory for psychiatry has been superseded by a more detailed understanding of brain science that suggests mental illness is largely a consequence of disturbances in brain physiology rather than a consequence of competing subconscious desires. Conversely someone in a minority position should be scrupulous in making sure they are not merely adhering to their own view of the evidence in an idiosyncratic manner ignoring evidence which does not suit their pet theory. As the aphorism goes “they laughed at Einstein, but they also laughed at Bozo the clown”.


Humility by all and a desire to seek the truth are morally required. In the current discussions regarding climate change we have seen this lacking, on both sides but especially notable in those wishing to suppress any counterarguments against the current understanding held by the majority view. Again if the majority view is correct, the theory can be refined and perfected if its flaws are openly discussed and debated in a dispassionate manner.

The second concern is that any proposed solution weigh carefully its effects on the weakest members of society, that is the poor, and also not be immoral in and of itself. Some have proposed draconian curbs on population, even to have governments take active measures to curb population growth. To have governments dictate to individuals if they can have children or not is clearly tyrannical and intrinsically immoral, regardless of any benefits on the climate, and in fact such a solution is anti-human. The planet and all of creation exists for the good of man and not the reverse. Moreover given the coming demographic implosion, with the aging of entire populations and decreasing numbers of younger individuals able to assist with the support of the aged, not to mention, not being available to contribute to the economic growth of their own nations, such a solution may be disastrously counterproductive. It is with great dismay that we note groups working under the auspices of the United Nations have advocated approaches that suggest similar things, and we note that this seriously undermines the moral credibility of this body.


At this point such a policy solution with clearly evil implications represents only a small fraction of the potential responses to the problem of climate change. Other responses are purely areas of prudential judgment. One such proposal is to encourage a widespread increase in the use of nuclear power, which is an established and proven source of energy which does not increase CO2 emissions. We defer the assessment of the pros and cons of such an approach to the appropriate experts, however we reiterate our comments that that all the experts have a duty to seek the truth and the common good. We also note that any policy solution take special care to not adversely impact the poor of the developing world who can least bear the burden and whose sufferings are already great. Solutions which indiscriminately drive up the cost of energy in order to curtail its use need to weigh such an effect, although we certainly support any efforts to encourage wise and prudent use of energy and encourage voluntary energy conservation measures. We reserve the right to comment on plans that hurt the poor, not so as to specify detailed alternatives, given that the specific effects of a particular political/economic policy on the poor is a technical question left to the faithful, but rather to call to the world’s attention the need always to protect poor given Our Lord’s special love for them.


We also understand it might not be possible to find perfect solutions that do not cause some harms. Most public policies involve just such mixed effects and tradeoffs of competing goods.  The morality of such policies lies in the proper application of the well known principle of the “Double effect”, and is of its nature complex and difficult to discuss in the abstract.

Finally we note that it is not the role of the Church in most cases to specify policy choices or to choose political leaders. This is a decision left to the prudential judgment of the faithful. In some cases however some political choices advocate things which are intrinsically immoral. It is never licit to choose such things and it becomes immoral to choose candidates who promote them when a viable opposing candidate exists, who would make a better choice. This is made very clear in the situation of abortion in which it is always the duty of the state to protect innocent human beings from being killed. Given that abortion is a most heinous crime and in fact a particularly grave form of homicide, to support a pro-abortion candidate is always immoral and to advance laws that protect the unborn is a duty of all the faithful. This was pointed out by our predecessor,  Saint John Paul II of happy memory. In contrast most of the political choices surrounding the issues of climate change do not involve issues of intrinsic immorality, they are prudential judgments involving competing goods. Carbon tax credits and their pros and cons are one such thing. The Church can have no particular position in such a debate. A candidate for political office who perhaps has a political stance in such prudential matters that one finds appealing is not thereby excused from promoting things which are intrinsically evil. One would not support someone who favors torture or slavery or some form of tyranny even if one agrees with the policies enacted to offset climate change. As mentioned above a candidate who favored a policy which was intrinsically immoral, in terms of a solution to climate change would require that he be opposed. For example a political figure who mandated a government imposed one child policy including forced sterilization of its citizens would be advocating an intrinsic evil, even if it prevented a rise in CO2 emissions. This type of candidate could not be morally supported.

For now we pray for all those concerned with this issue and wait along with the rest of the world results of further dialog. We commend the planet to the care of our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of the unborn.



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