Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Pope Francis on Climate Change: The Mutually-Reinforcing Impacts of Power, Wealth, and Culture

Writing in 2015, Pope Francis addressed the problem of climate change and suggested what he, or the Vatican more broadly, considered to be necessary systemic changes on the road to recovery. In the encyclical, the patient may be human nature itself—specifically, its self-destructive propensity and trait of power-aggrandizement. In other words, we had lost control of our built-up (i.e., artificial) societal systems and structures, which could wind up strangling us in their protection of the status quo. In this essay, I discuss the Pope’s portrayal of the problem of climate change from the standpoints of culture, power, and wealth. I then address the feasibility of the Pope’s prescription.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” the Pope reports.[1] “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. At the time, India, Pakistan, and parts of western North America were either in or soon to be in heat-waves.

The Pope turns to what he viewed as more subtle causes of the climate change. “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.” These “man-made” contributors in turn set in motion natural contributors. “The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” Put another way, the CO2 already in the atmosphere—at approximately 400 ppm—had already triggered natural processes beyond the reach of human technology. The resulting climatic shift could easily outpace the ability of biological evolution to adapt. Given the historical role of the Creationism-Evolution false-dichotomy, the Pope’s reference to evolution is striking.

Undergirding the role of fossil fuels, the Pope highlights socio-economic and political obstacles. “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. 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 Pope evinces very little patience for such attitudes. He was hardly alone. "We are not here today to debate whether or not climate change is real. We are not here to debate whether or not human activity is contributing to that. These questions have been settled by science," U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said a week after the Vatican’s release of the encyclical.[2] On the same day, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change came out with its report.[3] More severe heat waves, longer allergy seasons, and decreased urban air-quality were already erasing gains made in public health, according to the report.[4] It's like a cigarette smoker with lung problems,” a Commission official said at the time. “Doctors can treat the disease, but the first thing that has to be done is to get the patient to stop smoking, or in this case get off coal in the next five years.”[5] In short, the world—or, more precisely, the species—no longer had the luxury of denial; in fact, radical change was urgently needed.

Formidable, well-entrenched forces nevertheless stood in the way. In fact, some were actually urging environmental deregulation. Accordingly, the Pope charges ahead. “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change.” This is not enough. “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained.” In other words, an expedient, selfish mentality—doubtless rooted in human nature itself—has been a steady obstacle to caring for ecosystems such that the species made in God’s image might long endure.

Additionally, organizational and societal artifacts have been erected in line with the sordid mentality. Indeed, the Pope claims that “many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption.” Privileging “short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production,” those models do not adequately absorb externalities—such as costs borne by the environment because firms can evade them. Whereas “the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production.” The circular system of inputs, manufacture, and use is not sufficiently closed. On the input end, natural resources are depleted. On the output end, waste piles up in the “throwaway culture,” whether in the oceans or in the air.

Unfortunately, culture and leadership can wind up reinforcing each other in favor of the status quo. “The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations.” We lack principled leaders with the guts to stand up to the corporate patrons whose disproportionate impact on democracies gives the vested interests in the status quo a veto on real change. The inherent conflict of interest is of course ignored. Additionally, people are too willing to enable the denial espoused in some of their respective leaders’ rhetoric. “As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” A cultural mentality ensconced in a throwaway society reinforces the leaders of denial.

Furthermore, the live-for-today mentality societally in an era of technological advancement proffers a blind faith in technology as savoir. “Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities,” Francis writes, “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.” The incrementalism itself may reflect the nature of the production model based on Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. The Pope points to the tunnel-vision inherent in such an approach. “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.

Not even human pride in our sapiens brain can touch the intricate complexity in Creation as evinced in natural laws. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.” The precariousness of conditions consistent with human life is invisible next to the observed constancy through a “long life” and, moreover, the length of human history. “Many people will deny doing anything wrong,” the Pope maintains, “because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.” The subtle premise that tomorrow will be like today is so hardwired into the human psyche that we are vulnerable to environmental shocks.

Not unexpectedly, the Pope assumes a distinctly religious perspective. Rather than selfishly padding our own nests in excess to what is natural (not to mention necessary) within a narrow perspective, “we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness.” Seeing himself as such an instrument, the Pope goes beyond the problem itself to propose possible steps toward a solution.

Given the tyranny of the status quo and its formidable defenders, the Pope argues that the “establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable.” The Pope is proposing here that some governmental sovereignty be transferred to the global level because relying on nation-states to deal with the externalities (i.e., CO2 emissions) had only resulted in dismal results. In other words, the nation-state system itself (and the disproportionate influence therein of business interests) had become incompatible with the new problem, which is inherently global and thus potentially treated at that scale, politically speaking.

“It is remarkable,” the Pope observes, “how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” According to the Pope, “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.” In other words, plutocracy—wherein wealth rules—combined with the externalities-problem of the nation-state system rendered continued reliance on the extant system of geo-politics nothing short of a fool’s errand. In fact, the reliance could be classified as self-destructive from the species’ standpoint.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a seventeenth-century philosopher, wrote in his treatise, The Social Contract, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” At least with respect to the tyranny of the industrial and political status quo, those chains are entirely of our own making. It is easy to point to theoretical freedom, and yet quite another to stand up to the paymasters in order to hem them in such that the maximizing species will not pierce the semi-permeable membrane of the Earth’s habitat for humanity. If a transfer of governmental sovereignty to a global entity is needed to stave off additional climate change, who’s to say that large multinational corporations won’t capture that power too? Moreover, how many government officials would willingly give up some power to a global organization that could hold them accountable? At the time, the U.S. would not even agree to be bound by the International Criminal Court. Also, neither China nor Russia—defenders of the notion of absolute sovereignty, or “internal affairs”—would likely consent to be bound by a global entity that could be dominated by the U.S. and the E.U. In short, if the Vatican’s assessment and prescription are correct, the species made in God’s image might turn out to be a flickering image on the mask of eternity.



1. Pope Francis, “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si,” All quotes from the Pope in this essay are from this source.
3. The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, “Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” The Lancet, June 23, 2015.
4. Sheppard, “Surgeon General.”
5. Seth Borenstein, “Panel of Doctors Give a Warming Earth a Physical and Say Kick the Coal Habit Immediately,” US News and World Report, June 22, 2015.