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Pope Francis’s Poverty And Environment Ideas Will Worsen Both


As a lifelong Catholic with graduate degrees in religious studies and a long stint as the head of an environmental agency second in size only to the Environmental Protection Agency, I am deeply troubled by Pope Francis’ encyclical “Praise to You, Lord (Laudato, Si’): On Care of Our Common Home.” Long anticipated for revelation of the pope’s support for a global climate treaty, the encyclical is, and is not, focused on global warming.

On the one hand, this lengthy, many-layered papal letter can be understood as a rich theological reflection on the human individual’s relationship with the natural world through the eyes of the pope’s namesake—the ascetic and mystic St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). On the other hand, much of the text reads like an anti-capitalist polemic.

Excuse Me: Capitalism has Drastically Reduced Poverty

Whether explicitly or implicitly, the thrust of the text, however, focuses on global warming in urgent calls to reverse the “disfigurement and destruction of creation” and to heal the earth “now burdened and laid waste” by human sin. In language topping the hyperbolic rhetoric of most warmists, the pope contends that industrialization over the last two centuries has so “hurt and mistreated” our home that the earth is now “an immense pile of filth.” Is the pope oblivious to the vast improvement in human welfare and environmental quality flowing from modern economic growth?

Since 1800, global human life expectancy has increased more than three-fold. Per-capita income has increased eleven-fold, and global population has increased eight-fold. From 1960-2007, the world population doubled. Instead of the mass starvation predicted by Neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich, the food supply per person has actually increased by 27 percent. Hunger is no longer a question of food supply, but of access to the supply. Of course, there is a huge divergence between developed and developing countries, but improvements are global in reach. The United Nations estimates that poverty has decreased more in the last 50 years than it had in the previous 500 years.

The economic growth that has made this colossal advance possible was driven by market economies and the abundant, concentrated, and affordable energy in fossil fuels. Natural-gas-based fertilizer is responsible for huge gains in our food supply. Fossil fuels remain a necessary condition of the soaring productivity that distinguishes the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath from all previous eras. This economic growth has most benefitted the average worker, allowing the emergence of a middle class for the first time in human history. A hasty rush to inferior energy sources threatens this most momentous advance in the physical conditions of human society.

Capitalism has also Improved the Environment

This prosperity has led to dramatic environmental improvements. Sustained economic growth enabled huge investment in innovative technologies that have dramatically reduced air pollution and water contamination. In an understandable rush to electrify, China has severely polluted urban air quality, but is beginning to install emission controls. Studies such as the Environmental Performance Index demonstrate that countries with market economies and related legal institutions achieve the highest environmental quality.

Fossil fuels have shrunk the human footprint on the magnificent natural world.

Fossil fuels have shrunk the human footprint on the magnificent natural world. Without them, woodlands would be felled and crop land vastly expanded. The environmental “filth” of which Pope Francis speaks does not describe mature industrialized market economies, but all pre-industrial societies in which streets and water courses were packed with excrement and putrefied waste.

The pope’s position on anthropogenic global warming admits no doubt. “A very solid consensus of science indicates that we are witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” Without further explanation, the encyclical reiterates the orthodox ideology of the most extreme warmists. Humanity’s use of fossil fuels and “compulsive consumption”—which includes things like air-conditioning—is the overwhelming cause of an apocalyptic “crisis” now at the “breaking point.” The letter overlooks the nearly 20-year pause in warming temperatures and the United Nations’ most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific assessment reports finding that allegedly unprecedented weather events are neither unusual nor likely caused by global warming.

One-World Government Is an Awful Idea

The most disturbing aspect of the pope’s letter is his solution for the “deep crisis”—global governance with teeth. The encyclical recommends creation of a “one world common plan” implemented by a “true world political authority” (quoting his predecessor Benedict XVI). This international institution is to enforce the global plan through “functionaries who are appointed fairly in agreement by national governments and empowered to impose sanctions.”

Pope Francis may repeatedly disavow the Catholic Church’s meddling in matters of science and politics, but this encyclical puts his office inside those domains.

Pope Francis may repeatedly disavow the Catholic Church’s meddling in matters of science and politics, but this encyclical puts his office inside those domains. He openly acknowledges his hope that his letter will influence the outcome of negotiations for a global treaty to be sealed this year in Paris. On the day the Vatican released the encyclical, Catholic bishops held a press conference followed by congressional briefings in DC. It appears the last time the church became so embroiled in science was when Pope Urban VIII arrested Galileo in 1632.

Also disquieting is the pope’s failure to recognize that his favored policies to avert global warming are increasing the very poverty he seeks to alleviate. The renewable energy he supports to “replace fossil fuels without delay” has left roughly 800,000 households in Germany without electricity because they are unaffordable at prices now three times higher than the average rate in the United States. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund inhibit or deny financing for affordable electricity from fossil fuels in developing countries, consigning the poorest of the world to lives of continued misery.

Setting aside these sharp contours, Pope Francis’ encyclical does offer a powerful message about the state of our culture damaged by moral relativism. His reminder of what it means to value the dignity of each human being made in the image of a loving God “takes us to the heart of what it is to be human.” As a Catholic, I mourn the absence of one vital factor in the pope’s letter: human liberty guided by a clear moral compass and the rule of law. As the twentieth century so tragically demonstrates, “common plans” inevitably enforced through totalitarian polity lead to environmental squalor, poverty, and denial of inherent worth of the individual. On this matter, let us pray that the encyclical evokes vigorous dialogue.