Let’s listen to the pope on climate

The Syllabus of Errors, issued in 1864 under the auspices of Pope Pius IX, famously ends by condemning the proposition that:

The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.

Is Pope Francis a latter-day Pio Nono? Such is the impression one gets from some of the reactions to the pope’s new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute accuses Francis of opposing “cities, wealth, technology – material progress.”

Nor is this an isolated example. Opposition to the encyclical has been building for months. The Heartland Institute launched a campaign to “Tell Pope Francis: Global warming is not a crisis,” asking readers to:

Talk to your minister, priest or spiritual leader. Tell him or her you’ve studied the global warming issue and believe Pope Francis is being misled about the science and economics of the issue. Refer him or her to this website.

Others have suggested that Francis is advocating Latin American-style socialism.

Hyperbole is part of politics. But there seems to be a fairly large disconnect between the criticism of Laudato Si (much of it made before the release of the actual text) and the encyclical itself. The actual document is a more measured affair.

For one thing, it’s not even really accurate to call it a “climate encyclical.” Most of the document is devoted to other environmental issues (ranging from clean drinking water to biodiversity) or to the proper Christian perspective on the environment, generally. Only a small portion of the lengthy encyclical is devoted to climate change, per se. Much of what the encyclical does say about climate change is in keeping with the prior statements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the issue. The encyclical says that:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system… 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. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

This treatment of the subject wouldn’t be out of place in a standard textbook on climatology. I confess that I’ve long found it strange how politically fraught discussions of technical scientific subjects like climate sensitivity and the greenhouse effect have become. Political pundits don’t spend a lot of time and energy arguing over plate tectonics or the comparative merits of quantum mechanics versus the theory of relativity.

The difference, of course, is politics. Climate change has gotten so intertwined in many people’s minds with certain proposed political responses to climate change (think: Al Gore) that the temptation is to equate the one with the other.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. While the Laudato Si analyzes different aspects of the climate problem, the encyclical explicitly recognizes that “different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions” and that “[o]n many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”

Francis is skeptical of technological innovation as a solution to climate change, and the encyclical contains a few curious, seemingly negative, remarks about things like air conditioning and the Internet. At the same time, the attacks tend to be qualified. It’s not progress but “irrational faith in progress” that he opposes; not technology but “blind confidence in technical solutions.” And Francis elsewhere praises specific new technologies that are going to be needed if we are going to reduce carbon emissions without hurting the poor. As the encyclical states:

For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people.

What’s significant about Laudato Si is not that it adds anything new of substance to what scientists, economists or even prior popes have said about climate change. Rather, the encyclical is likely to be significant simply by raising the salience of the climate issue. The Great Recession temporarily knocked climate change off the front pages, and it’s an issue that a lot of us would prefer not to think about. But as 2015 appears headed to shatter another temperature record, it is becoming clearer that the climate change issue isn’t going away.

One way or another, we will have to deal with it. Laudato Si is simply Pope Francis’ attempt to make our response more fruitful.

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