The Pope and Climate Change

There are news reports that Pope Francis is going to issue an encyclical on climate change. As we have stated in previous posts, Catholic X-ray is agnostic on the issue of climate change, and more specifically what to do about it. We have no expertise in climatology and no particular ability to assess the data for or against climate change. We note that most scientists seem to believe that man made CO2 emissions are causing global temperatures to rise, and we also note that the issue is so politicized that much of what is reported as science, is likely influenced by ideology. We also note that what to do about climate change in terms of policy requires expertise in areas beyond climate science and involves multiple public policy tradeoffs. For example we hear lots about lowering energy consumption but next to nothing about increasing the use of nuclear power (nuclear power does not result in CO2 emissions and has been advocated by some notably the international atomic energy agency as can be seen here ). Again the tradeoffs involved in these kinds of policy choices have nothing to do with climatology and require expertise in other areas. We have our opinions, but they are the opinions of educated lay people and in any case they are not the topic of this blog.

We do wish the Pope had the same thought, because nothing strikes me as so pointless as an encyclical on climate change. I do not particularly care if the Pope says climate change is not occurring, or if he says it is occurring and even outlines particular policies that should be followed to deal with it. Beyond the most general platitudes that any policies should impact the poor favorably or be mindful of our responsibility to care for the environment, this encyclical can say very little. It lies beyond the Pope’s competence. This is not our opinion, it is a Catholic dogma. The Pope has a teaching authority in faith and morals, but no authority in the specifics of secular matters. We have said this before, but I guess it bears repeating. In matters that are technical and secular in nature the Pope has no more expertise that he would otherwise have if he is not the Pope. Unless the Pope happens to be an economist, public policy expert, climatologist, or has expertise in alternative forms of energy generation he has no insight into anything directly relevant to climate change.  To the extent he might have some personal insight; these come from the education and experiences of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and are not at all related to any office of the papacy. They have the values of the arguments put forward to support them, no more, no less and enjoy no particular supernatural protection from error. Although there are some general moral principles involved regarding policy choices, they are so general as to be obvious or they touch on matters that are peripheral to the central issues related to climate change. It is not that it is impossible to imagine some issues that the Pope could speak to, with papal authority, that touch on climate change. For example it would be well withing papal authority to criticize policy choices of radical environmentalist that suggest strict population control should be a tool to control climate change and in is valid to note that it is a Catholic principle that we are stewards of creation and the goods of the world have a universal destination, so any policy solutions must be mindful of the poor, but such principles are either not central to the main issues surrounding climate change policy or so general as to be obvious.   In fact it is not clear if this document can even rightly be considered an “encyclical” in the sense that the Church historically has used the term. Traditionally as the Catholic Encyclopedia has said, encyclicals:



“……are generally concerned with matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large. They condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent. “



It is hard to see how climate change would be relevant to any of this, and indeed as a topic for an encyclical it would be hard to find something analogous.
I can almost guarantee in advance that the encyclical will argue that anything we do must be mindful of the poor and protect the environment, but it seems fairly obvious that no one is suggesting we merely trample over the poor and destroy the environment, and very probably some things that one might argue are protective of the environment might very well hurt the poor. (For example one might propose very high taxes on energy which might lower CO2 consumption, but drive the cost of energy up, thus hurting the living standards of the poor.) This is not the place to argue every policy decision we could make, but it is fair to note that a call for policies which simultaneously decrease energy consumption significantly, make a major impact on CO2 emissions, but only adversely impact the “rich” are not necessarily possible. In fact any policy proposed must be weighed based not just on its proposed intention but what it is actually likely to do. The Pope has zero expertise as Pope in weighing specific policies against each other, or against the status quo in terms of the practical effects of the policy on the climate, the marginalized, the poor or just about anything else. One wonders if the Pope will argue for a significant expansion of nuclear power plant production. If he did argue for that kind of policy prescription would this conceivable by a reasonable subject for a papal encyclical? This is absurd on the face of it, although frankly I think if climate change is significant problem (and for the sake of argument let’s concede it is) then it seems reasonable to advocate for a significant ramp up of nuclear power which provides relative cheap CO2 emission free energy.



If the Pope’s papacy keeps going in this direction much opportunity will be wasted. There are a host of issues on which a papal encyclical might reasonable be directed but climate change? I will make a further prediction that this encyclical will also include a collection of sentiments that reflects the anti-capitalist framework of Pope Francis, who seems to think the essence of free market economies lies in unmitigated greed. This is despite that Pope Francis has lived in one of the least economically free countries in South America. One wonders if the Pope has any idea what economic freedom looks like. (Granted some defenders of capitalism act like unmitigated greed is the essence of a free market, but they are wrong, alas that is a topic for another day.)


In probably the most ironic bit of all, I wager that the encyclical will go on to say a few other things. Notably that the world should work under the auspices of the United Nations to formulate cooperative policies that simultaneously end third world debt, end third world poverty, limit climate change, and cause it to rain beer. Well perhaps raining beer part will be neglected. Specific policy prescriptions will be left out. This is a good thing too since a specific policy that would achieve all of these goals and not also involve, elves or a fairy godmother is not readily available. Its a fair bet that the encyclical in its perplexing need to support the UN will fail to note that UN has called the Vatican a human rights violator and exists for no other ostensible purpose but to condemn the state of Israel. See here, here  and here .  The media will report all this as yet another bit of evidence of how conservatives are now out of favor and exiled to wail and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness, while now it is Catholic dogma that climate change is sinful and we are morally required to support every detail of the Kyoto protocol. After a brief round of superficial applause from the usual suspects for this encyclical, the same folks will go on vilifying the Church . We very likely will see some politically conservative Catholics write breathless arguments about how the Pope really did not mean this or that and that he is being completely misreported by the leftist media. Look for people like the esteemed George Weigel to jump in to fill this role.


All of this will have zero practical effect on any actual policy decision making, because no one anywhere on the political spectrum really believes that the Vatican has something useful to say on this subject beyond the propaganda value a Vatican statement can be used for. The primary effect then of the encyclical ( at least in the United States) will be to provide cover for Catholics who wish to vote for pro-abortion Democrats instead of relatively pro-life Republicans, and will do so on the tendentious grounds of a better position on “climate change”. I doubt this is Pope Francis’s intent but I would bet there are more than a few people who welcome this result. Some of them might even be clergy.One wonders if there is an American Bishop who might communicate this to Pope Francis.
Let’s say an extra rosary that this encyclical is less damaging then it potentially could be.
Our Lady Pray for us!


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