Papal Platitudes, Global Warming and the New Encyclical: Part One

Pope Francis issued his long-awaited encyclical today, entitled, Ladato Si or “Praise to You [O Lord].”  The 183 page document is concerned with the environment and more specifically with global climate change.  I am in the process of making my way through it, but have a few initial comments get things going.  First, the Pope rightly states that theology is crucial to thinking about economics and the environment.  We Protestants might say Scripture is particularly crucial, though many also recognize the value of natural law principles as well.   Second, the Pope correctly stated that

Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”.   Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is. (Quoting Pope John Paul II in Ladato, 6)

That statement is a fine and succinct theological summary of our proper obligations to humans themselves and our natural world.  The Pope then quotes Benedict XVI:

With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (Ibid, 7).

Benedict was correct too.  The natural world is not ours to do as we wish anytime we wish.  Nor can we see ourselves as humans as the measure of all things, failing to acknowledge God.  As Genesis 1: 26-31 makes plain, our job is stewardship.  Now we will see that the current Pope has a different idea of stewardship than a proper interpretation of that text would allow.  But hold that thought.  The point is that Francis is correct in a general way.  The devil is in the details, as we will see.

I also agree with Francis that progress is not an unalloyed good.   He writes of the idea of progress from the Enlightenment as an “irrational confidence in progress and human abilities” (16).  And of course, we must acknowledge that pollution in sufficient quantity and type can cause physical harm.  How much pollution is acceptable is still a matter of debate.  But we all know environmental degradation is still a problem and that at least some prudential governmental intervention is desirable and morally acceptable.  However Francis goes awry when he addresses climate change.  I think Francis is also correct to define the climate as a common good (18).

But he then writes “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. (18)”  Francis adds, “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. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. (19).  Here lie the assumptions that are the core of the issue.  Francis assumes first that science has “proven” that climate change is created by humans, second that it is the main cause of the pollution “crisis,” third that it is indeed any causal factor in the recent (recent?) unusual natural phenomena and fourth, that even if climate change is man-made, that it is harmful—it may not in fact be harmful, that we can’t tell yet.  Let’s explore further.  Finally, fifth, Francis assumes (apparently) that no level of pollution is acceptable.  In this, he fails to grasp the fact that all actions have both benefits and costs.  Pollution reduction is a benefit, but if the costs of the policies to reduce it are greater than the benefits, the policy should not be adopted, unless not doing so results in actual and immediate harm.  It may be that people’s lives are saved by the pollution policies the pope advocates, thought we cannot be sure the threat is that great, but if millions more are threatened, then that amounts to a real cost.

First, is climate change “proven” by science?  No, not in any greater sense than any variable is “caused” by any independent variable.  Empirical investigation proceeds on the basis of probability, which is not by definition based on metaphysical certainty.  This also means that if an empirical study appears purporting to “prove” global climate change, this is subject to critique based on later and better studies.  From studies paradigms emerge, but paradigms are not necessarily right just because they represent some sub-group of scientists.  Furthermore, the assumptions made in studies may bias the results.  And the incentives for biases are magnified when an issue is politicized from the start.  Global climate change is not held as man-made, or a causal factor in pollution problems or harmful by all scientists.  So there is certainly not unanimous consent, much less a “consensus.”  Even if a consensus exists, paradigms in science are frequently abandoned even when consensual, as new work overturns the old.  That is what is happening now—arguably.  But even so, the jury is still out.  It is out as to whether there is climate change, as to whether it is man-made and as to whether it is harmful if it does exist.  Please understand that I am not definitively denying anything, only that it is by no means even a relative consensus.  More, much more, is needed.  Finally, the type of science being often used In climate change studies is modelling.  Models can be useful, but they are not proof unless empirical investigation can actually support the model substantially.  There are other possible and plausible explanations for climate change if it exists—natural change, for example—and there are studies that indicate that climate change may be good.  Those do not constitute falsification of the current models, but they cannot be ignored.

Second, we can’t directly connect climate change, if it exists, to pollution problems.  The evidence is much too tenuous.  Does our pollution cause climate change?  We can’t be at all sure and in fact some evidence suggests that since pollution has decreased over time, then it cannot be a main cause of any past or existing change in climate.  In fact, in past centuries, when pollution levels were very low (little manufacturing and low populations) climate changes did occur in small  increments and over relatively short periods.

Third, the connection between possible climate change and unusual natural phenomena is very, very tenuous.  A model can hypothesize that connection.  But how does one even make this connection empirically?

Fourth, if climate change exists and is significant and man-made, is it harmful?  Maybe not.  Maybe, as recent studies have indicated, climate warming means more water and a longer growing season.  Maybe the added CO2 is actually good for the climate.

My point is that Francis has immediately assumed too much.  Francis spends some 30 pages in accepting studies that support climate change without any reservations.  That is his support for the assumptions he initially makes.

But there is more in this document.  Francis also connects climate change with societal deterioration and specifically with the problem of poverty.  His example is of the depletion of fishing reserves.  Again, that example may well be localized pollution or it may be natural.  It cannot automatically be attributed to climate change.  But his introduction of poverty issues also opens the door to his criticism of markets or capitalism.

Francis does foreclose some unacceptable solutions to the problem of the poor.  He rightly denies that state-imposed population control is a good solution. He also denies abortion as a solution.  All biblical Christians would agree.  He writes, regarding the wealthy nations (by implication, those that have prospered by polluting), that (pardon the long quote):

“Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local 38 stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable (36-37).

So Francis is saying that the wealthy nations owe a debt to the poor nations for impoverishing them by their polluting ways in order to become economically prosperous.  I am confused here.  If the wealthy nations became wealthy BY polluting, then the poorer ones have to do the same—more climate change?  Now if he simply wants the wealthy nations to give aid or direct money to poor nations, then those wealthy nations must continue to pollute to maintain that level of prosperity.  If we force expensive technology on wealthy nations that reduces pollution, then we reduce prosperity also and there is a lot less to share with others—even apart from whether nations ought to simply give away aid.

Francis also opposes “multinationals” but don’t they employ people?  Beginning around page 40, Francis seems to call for much greater (than already?) government intervention in the economic affairs of any “polluting” nations (which he seems to equate with wealthy—though that is not a fair assertion, since China is less wealthy than the US but pollutes more per capita because of its more dated technology and its manufacturing emphasis).  He accuses wealthy nations of exploitation, for example, in “controlling” resources (40).  But don’t dictators do more of that, much more, harming their own people by misuse and funneling profits to themselves?

Francis does address his critics:

Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions. 61. On 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 (43-44).

But does he dismiss the market side of the argument as “extreme”?  He appears to do that.  We will see more of this criticism of markets later in the document, particularly beginning on page 130.  But for now, I will stop until I fully digest the encyclical.   Part 2 will be coming within the next few days, along with my summary conclusions.

 

4 thoughts on “Papal Platitudes, Global Warming and the New Encyclical: Part One”

  1. You say, the cost of eliminating pollution should not be greater than the benefit derived, agreed but….

    Isn’t it possible, there are long term costs to pollution that we aren’t aware of?
    When we are talking about our one and only earth, our life sustaining ship in space, shouldn’t we error on the conservative side and say… spend a little on a backup plan?
    And, isn’t it possible that industrial nations up stream minimize the cost by sending their pollution downstream. Is that possible? Does that happen?
    Does raw capitalism stop nations and companies from doing that? Some times maybe. Not usually if the nation down stream is not a trading partner.
    All is not well on planet earth.

  2. “But he then writes “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. (18)” Francis adds, “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. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. (19). Here lie the assumptions that are the core of the issue.

    Francis assumes first that science has “proven” that climate change is created by humans…”

    Proven? He says no such thing. You are misrepresenting what he said, obviously.

    Science does not “prove” anything. Rather, science disproves, as it has, when it comes to miasmatic theory, young earth creationism, alchemy, and Lamarck’s concept of evolution.

    The global warming hypothesis is supported by extensive data. The case is becoming stronger as more research is being conducted.

    1. Sorry, but you are mistaken. The case for man-made global climate change is not getting stronger. More studies are emerging that are skeptical of it in their results and also (unfortunately) we see a few attempts by global warming advocates to “hide” the evidence. Moreover “science” has not disproven young earth creationism, unless you include in your definition of science some presuppositional bias, such as a denial of the supernatural. If you don’t then you know that science cannot disprove young earth creationism, since the heart of the disagreement is a philosophical/theological issue.

      1. I’m not the poster you were responding to.

        Maybe you could provide some examples of studies? Everything I’ve seen has led towards global warming and man having at least some influence. In fact the UN did a meta study that came to that conclusion

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