Damian Thompson

The Pope and climate change: Francis is slapping his conservative critics in the face

The Pope and climate change: Francis is slapping his conservative critics in the face
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Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment comes down firmly on the side of the global warming consensus/lobby (delete according to taste) and is a slap in the face to climate sceptics of every hue. Thwack! It's very much this Pope's style.

Laudato si' says several important things about climate change. Here's the Catholic Herald's summary, based on the infamous leak:

According to a translation by the Wall Street Journal, the Pope says there is a 'very consistent scientific consensus' that we are in the presence of 'an alarming warming of the climatic system'.

He writes that there is an 'urgent and compelling' need for policies that reduce carbon emissions, such as 'replacing fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy'.

He adds that 'numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) emitted above all due to human activity' and calls on people to change their lifestyles.

To Catholic sceptics, and there are plenty of them, this will sound as if the Holy Father has said: 'The science is settled and if you think otherwise perhaps you should consult your confessor.' They'll be furious.

But, of course, the encyclical's position is more nuanced than that.

When Francis talks about a scientific consensus about man-made climate change, he's stating a fact. When he says we need policies to reduce carbon emission – well, it depends what the policies are. As for 'changing lifestyles' having any effect on global warming, I'll believe it when I see it.

I used to be a paid-up climate sceptic until I realised that (a) I didn't know nearly enough to state an opinion on the subject and (b) there isn't a simple chasm between 'alarmists' and 'deniers', as they call each other.

For a nicely balanced reaction to Laudato si', I recommend an article by Bjorn Lomborg, the 'skeptical environmentalist', in USA Today:

[T]oday's climate policies themselves have a cost, which predominantly hits the poor.

Cuts in electricity consumption require price hikes that hurt the worst-off and elderly. Relying on expensive green energy sources like wind and solar power makes electricity pricier and less available for those who desperately need it.

The biggest problem with today's climate change policies is that they will cost a fortune for very little good. The toughest global warming policy today is the European Union's commitment to cutting 20% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This will cost $235 billion. And cut temperatures at the end of the century by a measly 0.1ºF.

Lomborg isn't dismissing the Pope's views. He agrees with Francis that we need to do more to fight pollution and climate change. So he's in favour of an end to fossil fuel subsidies, which benefit the middle class by making oil cheaper while adding to pollution that devastates poor communities. He also wants 'a big global increase in green energy research, to speed the day when renewable energy sources can outcompete fossil fuels'.

However, says Lomborg, 'we also need to recognise that the actions that would most help the world's poor are not climate policies'. He criticises the UN for setting 169 development targets instead of concentrating on big (and achievable) goals such as improving nutrition and lowering trade barriers.

There's not much trace of this argument in Laudato si'. Lomborg is too diplomatic to say so, but the new encyclical creates the impression that – yet again – a Pope is genuflecting before the United Nations. Every recent pontiff has developed this bad habit. Their intentions are honourable, but I can't help wondering whether the long Catholic-UN romance owes something to a natural fit between the corrupt Roman Curia and its sleazy counterparts in the UN.

In this document, however, Francis goes further than his predecessors: he endorses the UN's diagnosis of and solutions to the complex problem of climate change. That's his prerogative, but don't let anyone tell you that he's speaking ex cathedra. Jeb Bush, a Catholic, has every right to say – as he did this week – that, with all due respect, he doesn't take his economic policies from the Supreme Pontiff.

Laudato si isn't just about the environment: it's a political statement by the Pope. He knows very well that climate change has been dragged into the Left vs Right culture wars, not only in the secular arena but also in the Catholic Church.

One of the world's leading climate sceptics is Cardinal Pell, who is also the most influential conservative in the Church – though, significantly, he is loyal to the Pope and charged with implementing his financial reform agenda. This must be a difficult encyclical for Pell; I'd love to know what he says about it privately.

For less loyal conservatives, Laudato si will be evidence that 'Bergoglio', as they call him, is as unsound on climate change as he is on preserving the purity of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. American traditionalists in particular will hate it. They are an influential lobby in US public life and especially in the Republican Party – but not influential at all in the Vatican under this pontificate. Pope Francis seems to go out of his way to antagonise them: witness the ugly defenestration of Cardinal Burke.

This encyclical will further increase tension between Right-wing Americans and the Pope as we approach the second session of the Synod on the Family in October. It also puts the former at a disadvantage. If the Synod discusses the UN and climate change, they will find that the Africans who supported them on marriage and homosexuality are also pro-UN. (This is no surprise, given the disproportionate influence Africa wields in the UN General Assembly.)

Pope Francis may have worked this out for himself. Then again, perhaps I'm ascribing to him a Jesuitical cunning that he doesn't actually possess. Anyone can see that he is drifting towards Left (and specifically the anti-American Left) as he settles into the job. But whether this is part of a coherent plan for the Church is still frustratingly unclear.