The Pope and Climate Change


JUNE 19, 2015

Credit Andrew Holder       

The issue of climate change — unlike, say, the economy — may not be a matter of everyday concern to many Americans or most citizens of the planet. The debate is too often clouded by ideology and well-financed attempts to sow doubt about the underlying science. Even among those aware enough to worry, the long-term consequences can seem remote. As one futile international conference after another has attested, the facts alone have not been enough to move world governments to take decisive action.
Enter now Pope Francis with “Laudato Si.” Leaked on Monday, and presented to an expectant world on Thursday, “Laudato Si” is the first papal encyclical devoted solely to environmental issues — and also, Pope Francis clearly hopes, the beginning of the broad moral awakening necessary to persuade not just one billion Catholic faithful, but humanity at large, of our collective responsibility to pass along a clean and safe planet to future generations. In other words, to do the things that mere facts have not inspired us to do.
Thus far, he made clear, we mortals have made a mess of it, polluting the air and water, destroying forests and wildlife, wantonly wasting resources. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he declared. “In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”
A papal document along these lines had been expected for months, but even so, the language packed an unexpectedly authoritative and confident punch, especially on global warming. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” he wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
Echoing the virtually unanimous findings of mainstream scientists, Pope Francis fixes the blame squarely on humans and their burning of fossil fuels, while warning of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” The hardest-hit — here again he echoes mainstream thinking — will be the poorest citizens of the poorest countries, those least able to adapt to the rising seas and devastating droughts and floods that are likely to occur even in this century without swift remedial action.

The timing of “Laudato Si” could not have been better. In December, delegates from nearly 200 nations will gather in Paris to make one more attempt at a global arrangement that would commit all nations to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, before atmospheric concentrations reach what some believe is the point beyond which truly intolerable consequences are inescapable. Some countries, including the United States and the European Union, have already published their commitments — President Obama has pledged to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Other big emitters, including China and Brazil, are expected to do so well before Paris.
Although the Vatican has not said so, Pope Francis must surely have intended the document as a nudge to individual governments; Brazil, for instance, has a large Catholic population and may see his words as cover for what could be unpopular policies to limit development and the clearing of forests for agricultural purposes — a restriction that is essential to any effective climate policy.
Sadly, the encyclical, compelling as it is, is unlikely to have a similarly positive effect on American politics. The Republican presidential candidates, on the whole, have avoided discussing climate change, at least when they’re not dismissing it completely as an issue.
Meanwhile, in Congress, by straight party-line votes, both the House and Senate appropriations committees have passed bills that would make it impossible for President Obama to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants — the centerpiece of the strategy he intends to present to the negotiators in Paris.

Even though Mr. Obama is virtually certain to veto such measures, the fact that a majority in Congress does not support him cannot help his credibility as a world leader on the climate issue. But of course, that matters not a bit to the likes of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. What concerns Mr. McConnell is whether the Environmental Protection Agency will impose new rules on the coal mining industry in Kentucky.
A pope in Rome worries about how we can shepherd the planet safely into the future. If only the senator from Kentucky and others in Congress could join him in thinking bigger.

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