Will Pope Francis Privilege the Privileged?

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared in The Stream on May 28, 2015.

Next month, many Vatican observers expect Pope Francis to issue an encyclical in which he declares that we are causing catastrophic climate change and must take drastic measures to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Such a formal declaration would, I fear, make a bad situation far worse. It would serve to ossify still further the spurious claims that the “science is settled” and that there is no legitimate room for serious debate over, alternative hypotheses to, or measured skepticism about the central claims of the supposed “climate consensus.” We are already at a point where expressions of doubt about the theory of catastrophic global warming are routinely compared to denying the fact of the Nazi Holocaust.

In addition, contemporary radical environmentalism serves many adherents as a secularized version of Christianity, with its own parallel versions of sin, penance, redemption, saints and apocalypse. My colleague Rachelle Peterson and I built on these observations in our recent study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. But the appeal of radical environmentalism is not limited to secularists searching for a simulacrum for Christianity. Liberal Protestant churches and leading Catholics have for some time annexed pieces of the radical environmental movement to Christianity itself.

That annexation isn’t entirely a comfortable affair. It has what might be called a Genesis 1:28 problem: God’s command to Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Subduing the Earth is blasphemy in the creed of radical environmentalism, and filling the Earth with people is likewise a terrible transgression. Thus the Christian annexation of radical environmentalism faces internal strains.

What Will Francis Say?

But what is Pope Francis likely to say? Early signs have been troubling. On April 28, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences hosted a lop-sided summit at the Vatican in which Jeffrey Sachs, president of the Earth Institute and longstanding advocate of abortion as a key step towards saving the Earth, was a featured speaker. William Briggs has helpfully unpacked the profound problems of such an alliance here at The Stream.

The Vatican’s spokesman on climate change, Cardinal Peter Turkson, said this at the conference:

The ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the earth’s delicate ecological balance on almost-unfathomable scale.

We clearly need a fundamental change, of course, to protect the earth and its people. … The wealthiest countries, the ones who have benefitted most from fossil fuels, are morally obligated to push forward and find solutions to climate-related change and so protect the environment and human life.

In March Cardinal Turkson gave a lecture at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University in Ireland in which he laid out the fuller theological context for these claims, based on “the call to be protectors” of “both creation and the human person.” The Vatican is staking a position in favor of the broader sustainability movement, drawing on earlier Catholic teachings about “each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos.” The larger aim is to address “global inequalities,” and, as Cardinal Turkson sees it, that includes fighting “climate change,” enforcing “carbon emission targets,” and implementing international agreements, even though these steps “are not enough in themselves to sustain change of human behavior.” What more is needed is an “ecological conversion, a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor and to the priorities of the global economy.”

Such claims have led to pushback from fellow believers who have followed the climate debate closely. The Cornwall Alliance, for example, issued an “Open Letter to Pope Francis on Climate Change” which took issue with the “highly speculative and theory-laden conclusions” that “many well-meaning moral and religious leaders” have been attracted to.

The Cornwall statement raised some serious, real-world moral questions about the hasty embrace of climate dogma. As its statement warned:

Wind and solar energy, because of their higher costs and lower efficiency, account for only a few percent of total global energy use. Fossil fuels, because of their lower costs and higher efficiency, account for over 85%. Substituting low-density, intermittent energy sources like wind and solar for high-density, constant energy sources like fossil fuels would be catastrophic to the world’s poor. It would simultaneously raise the cost and reduce the reliability and availability of energy, especially electricity. This, in turn, would raise the cost of all other goods and services, since all require energy to produce and transport. It would slow the rise of the poor out of poverty. It would threaten to return millions of others to poverty. And it would make electricity grids unstable, leading to more frequent and widespread, costly and often fatal, brownouts and blackouts — events mercifully rare in wealthy countries but all too familiar to billions of people living in countries without comprehensive, stable electric grids supplied by stable fossil or nuclear fuels. …

The world’s poor will suffer most from such policies. The poorest — the 1.3 billion in developing countries who depend on wood and dried dung as primary cooking and heating fuels, smoke from which kills 4 million and temporarily debilitates hundreds of millions every year — will be condemned to more generations of poverty and its deadly consequences. The marginal in the developed world, who on average spend two or more times as much of their incomes on energy as the middle class, will lose access to decent housing, education, health care, and more as their energy costs rise. Some will freeze to death because they will be unable to pay their electricity bills and still buy enough food. Tens of thousands died even in the United Kingdom in several recent winters due to Britain’s rush to substitute wind and solar for coal to generate electricity.

In short, climate change policies advertised to help the poor could in fact devastate the poor. And this is what most worries me about a papal endorsement of the climate catastrophists. Unwittingly, Pope Francis could end up siding with those who are already ensconced in positions of institutional power nationally and internationally. The Pope speaks on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. But the main beneficiaries of a papal endorsement of climate catastrophism would not be the third world poor but rich and powerful transnational elites, who would like nothing more than to marginalize and silence dissenters.

Image: Korea.Net, cropped.

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