21 June 2015

The Pope’s encyclical on the environment: Not even close?

Lawrence M. Krauss

Lawrence M. Krauss

 Lawrence M. Krauss is a theoretical physicist, chair of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors, and the director of the Origins Project...


It is ironic that while the scientific community has long tried to raise warning signals and induce action to address human-induced climate change, an encyclical from the pope on this subject is being taken by many as an ultimate call to action on this urgent issue.

To be sure, the Pope’s encyclical is based in large part on input from various scientific communities, and it is heartening to see that his document not only clearly asserts the existence of human induced climate change, but also clearly delineates many of the impacts, especially the disproportionate impact it is likely to have on the world’s poor.

Language like the following make the urgency and reality of the problems associated with climate change clear:

“There is a very consistent scientific consensus indicating that we are in the presence of a disturbing heating of the climate system. In recent decades, this warming was accompanied by the constant rising of the sea level, and it is also hard not to relate it with the rise in extreme weather events... [N]umerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming in recent decades is due to the large concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide, and others) mainly emitted due to human activity. Their concentration in the atmosphere prevents the heat of the solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space. This is especially enhanced by the model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the center of the global energy system. It is also affected by the increase of the practice of changing land use, mainly by deforestation for agricultural purposes… [T]he heating has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious cycle which aggravates the situation even more and which will affect the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in the hottest areas, and will result in the extinction of a part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting of polar and high altitude ice threaten the leakage of methane gas which carries high risks, and the decomposition of frozen organic matter could further accentuate the emission of carbon dioxide. In turn, the loss of tropical forests makes things worse, since these help to mitigate the climate change. The pollution produced by carbon dioxide increases the acidity of the oceans and affects the marine food chain.”

In addition, the document makes clear that the impacts of climate change are disproportionate, with the poorest countries likely to bear the biggest brunt, from rising sea levels to changing agricultural ecosystems. Pope Francis also points a finger at the climate change deniers in the first world who “seem to focus especially on masking the problems or hiding the symptoms.”

Nevertheless, this encyclical is most definitely not a scientific document, and in it the pontiff does not depart from longstanding Catholic doctrines or dogma to any degree; consequently he does not allow himself to propose realistic solutions to these problems.

First off, he dismisses the need to address reproductive rights for women, and also the concomitant problem of population growth in poor countries as part of any proposed solution to world environmental problems. If one is seriously worried about the environment on a global scale, then one needs to worry about population growth. A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level that provides all humans with adequate food and access to medicine, water, and security.  Moreover, the environmental problems induced by overpopulation are also disproportionately born by those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited. As I have argued elsewhere recently in this regard, ultimately empowering women to manage their own reproductive future gives them the surest road out of poverty. As they travel it, they can improve their own lives and the lives of their children and also acquire better access to education, health care and economic opportunities.

Moreover, as my colleague Steven Pinker has emphasized in response to another piece I wrote about the pope’s encyclical, “The pontiff continues in the millennia-long Catholic tradition of vilifying technology, commerce, and ordinary people enjoying the fruits of material progress. So he puts the blame on economics and consumerism. But the solution to climate change is not to moralize from on high and implore people—particularly the poor people whom he claims to sympathize with—to learn to be abstemious for the common good and do without central heating, electric lights, and efficient transport. Billions of people aren’t going to do that. Not even the pope—especially not the pope—is going to do that.”

As Pinker then astutely argued, the solutions to the challenges raised by global climate change will be primarily economic and technological, including a global carbon tax and investment in the development of new energy technologies.

Of course, these solutions leave the pope, and his church, with no special role.  Thus, while I cannot fault the pope’s intentions, which are presumably praiseworthy, his proposals are inevitably compromised if they adhere to doctrines that can thwart real progress, and that attempt to use prior theological arguments to address issues that need to be dealt with by focusing on not only real problems but also on real solutions.