A response to Lawrence Krauss and the climate encyclical

By John H. Thomas | June 29, 2015

I read with interest Lawrence Krauss’ article on Laudato Si’, "The Pope’s encyclical on the environment: Not even close?" His critique of the pope’s affirmation of some Church doctrines, particularly regarding contraception, is one I share. It is important to recognize, however, that scientists, policy makers, and theologians will read Krauss's piece through very distinct lenses, and assessments will focus on different emphases. Hopefully, the Bulletin will find ways to acknowledge and explore each of them.

I’m sure it’s annoying to many outside the religious community, including many scientists, that religious views globally and profoundly shape how people understand and receive scientific work, and how they view public policy proposals. Like it or not, theology–particularly when it comes from the leader of the largest religious body in the world–matters. While the pope’s message on climate change may appear to come very late in the game to people like Dr. Krauss, it actually represents an extremely important sea change in how millions of people are asked to view their relationship to the environment, shifting us from a centuries-long view that sees the Earth as humankind’s convenience store to viewing the environment as a fundamentally interrelated organism that humans are charged with faithfully stewarding, rather than dominating. And given the great popularity of the pope right now within and beyond the Roman Catholic Church, we would do well to celebrate the megaphone granted to the hard-fought scientific consensus on climate change, rather than be dismissive.

The pope’s specific policy recommendations—including his rejection of a carbon tax system—should, of course, be subject to debate and critique. But I think the charge that the pope lays “all blame on economics and consumerism,” as attributed to Steven Pinker, misrepresents the encyclical. The pope does not lay all blame on economics and consumerism, nor does he dismiss technology. He does offer a forceful critique of the ways in which economics, technology, and consumerism have been employed, and to whose benefit, and viewing how such use has blocked important policy changes here in the United States, it is hard to naysay the pope on this. Further, the pope is well aware of how the vast majority of people in the global south have experienced the employment of economics and technology. To this point it has rarely been to their benefit. A hermeneutic of suspicion is appropriate to employ when the developed world marches in with its economic and technological solutions.

As for Pinker’s lines about urging “abstemious use,” the pope does attempt to give ordinary citizens ways to begin altering their own stewardship of the Earth’s resources. The point the pope makes, however, is not that this will solve our climate problems, but that this will begin to reshape a personal and communal spirituality (admittedly, a rather distant term for many scientists) of our stewardship of the Earth, a spirituality that is part of what it means to be faithful. Until that happens, we will do little more than mitigate the impact of our consumption, rather than alter the fundamental paradigm.

A religiously engaged and somewhat suspicious reader will note the insistence on qualifying the pope’s praiseworthy intentions with “presumably.” It’s hard not to read bias back through the article upon encountering that phaseology. My only additional editorial critique involves the headline. While the question mark is included, the phrase “not even close” sets up a dismissiveness that colors much of what follows, including Dr. Krauss’ affirmations of the pope's intentions. While the headline may draw some readers in, religiously engaged readers are immediately put on guard.

All of that said, I’m glad The Bulletin is engaging the encyclical. I hope there will be some additional pieces.

Editor's note: The author is married to Bulletin outreach and development associate Lydia Veliko. Lawrence Krauss is chair of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors.

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