Don’t Lose Sleep Over Climate Change Encyclical

It’s official. Progressives love Pope Francis. Their magazines, from Think Progress to Mother Jones, are abuzz with excitement in light of the recent rumor that the pope is going to issue an encyclical on climate change sometime in the next few months.

As a politically conservative American Catholic, I’m expected to throw a fit about this, and I hate to disappoint people. So even granting that this is still just a rumor, I’ll go ahead and admit that I would not welcome an encyclical that made carbon emissions a much-discussed topic. It would smack of intellectual faddism, and it’s always depressing to feel that Church authorities are more focused on trendy social controversies than on the fundamental business of saving souls.

Having said that, I’m not going to lose any sleep over a (possible) Church document on climate change. Nor should you.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

As a political conservative, I care somewhat about political issues such as this. But as a Catholic (which is much more important), I mainly care about fundamental Church teachings on faith and morals. Climate change is only very distantly relevant to any of these, so nothing the Holy Father says about it is likely to muddy doctrinal waters to any great extent. The deposit of faith is safe. Frankly, we should probably be grateful if the talking heads chatter a lot about Catholicism and climate change. After the recent, literally scandalous debates over divorce and family issues, it might be a relief to see the Holy Father devoting his energies to environmental concerns, rather than stirring up doubt and division over central doctrinal or moral questions.

I understand of course why progressives are so excited over an anticipated row between the Roman Pontiff and their conservative enemies. But there’s really no reason why this should happen, because when it comes to climate change, none of the controversial questions are of the sort that the Holy Father could definitively answer anyway.

Most of the time, the figures tarred as “climate deniers” are simply people who insist on parsing the relevant ecological, economic and prudential questions with a carefulness that runs contrary to the zealous, unthinking activism that liberals would prefer to foster. Progressives love to promote a narrative wherein they are on the side of science, while conservatives (and religious people especially) are sticking their heads in the sand and wishing away the mountains of empirical evidence that run contrary to their views. On top of that, climate-change panic harmonizes with many secularists’ sense of drama and impending doom. We might see it as the apocalyptic side of the progressive’s tendency to “immanentize the eschaton.” Liberal sensitivities are most appeased when they feel that political forces are about to usher us all into a new, shining utopia … provided nature doesn’t obliterate us first. We may achieve the paradise of the perfect political order, but only if we can escape being damned for the sin of inventing civilization in the first place.

Climate change, in other words, fits nicely with the pseudo-religious sensibilities of progressives. This is why people who understand nothing about the science will lobby aggressively for measures to reduce carbon emissions: because “science says so,” but also because it feels intuitively right to them that humans are on the verge of destroying themselves through environmental folly. Meanwhile, within the scientific community itself there is an army of public rent-seekers (not to mention providers of alternative energy, and Democratic politicians) who have everything to lose and nothing to gain from a relaxation of public concern over climate change. They are quite happy to stoke their acolytes into an activist frenzy. Taking all this together, there is plenty of reason to be cautious about jumping on the “science is settled” panic-wagon.

Of course it doesn’t follow from this that climate change isn’t a real concern. It probably is, to some extent. But when we dig into the details, it turns out that “climate change” is a far more complex issue than environmental activists like to admit. Even identifying what the relevant questions are with respect to climate change is a challenging task. Answering those questions is even more difficult.

Let’s start by considering the most basic of questions. Is climate change a real thing? On the most basic level, the answer is clearly “yes.” No intelligent person is actually a “climate denier,” because we all understand that it is entirely normal for the earth’s climate to change. Climate stasis would be the real aberration; climate change is the norm. The fact that it’s normal of course doesn’t mean that it’s not cause for concern. Changes in climate can cause all sorts of problems for human populations. But we shouldn’t act as though changes in climate represent some unique or unprecedented situation. Human civilizations have always had to adapt to changing weather patterns.

Our harbingers of climatory doom are of course not satisfied with this answer. They suggest that the climate is changing more than it normally does, or ought to, or more than it would but for the adverse effects of human civilization. This is certainly possible, but the issue is hard to settle because of course we really don’t know what our climate would look like without human civilization. Would Hurricane Haiyan still have hit the Philippines in a cleaner-energy world? Would it have been as bad as it was? Any answer we might give to that question will be highly speculative. And for all we know, there may have been other terrible natural disasters that didn’t happen, owing to human impacts on climate. Once again, it would be unreasonable to dismiss entirely the possibility that humans are impacting their climate in an undesirable way. But we also should not forget that weather has always been unpredictable, changeable, and occasionally deadly.

Even insofar as we can identify a likely connection between human activities (most especially carbon emissions) and climate change, further questions remain. Are the changes in climate negative for humans? And if so, are the economic costs of any recommended policy changes worth the climatory benefits?

I suspect that Pope Francis’ remarks, assuming he does offer some, will center around two points. First, he will likely offer some general observations about the importance of exercising good stewardship over the natural world. And second, he will remark on the injustice of the wealthy continuing to live in comfort at the expense of the “most vulnerable.” This is a favorite theme of his, and climate change may seem to fit the narrative since developed nations have higher “carbon footprints,” while poorer nations have greater difficulty adjusting to climatory change. But before concluding that there is a clear moral imperative to restrict the use of fossil fuels, we should keep in mind that the “most vulnerable” will also suffer from rising energy costs. Without cheap fossil fuels, many more people will be hungry and cold. Abundant energy also tends to fuel job growth, which the Holy Father has highlighted in the past as a vital concern for modern societies.

It’s reasonable for the Holy Father to use his moral authority to address ethical issues relating to climate change. However, he cannot claim infallibility, or even great expertise, in all the relevant empirical, economic and prudential questions that play into the controversies surrounding climate change. There is no reason for this issue to precipitate a standoff between the Holy Father and American conservatives. We should save our worrying for more important matters.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...