What Would Pope Francis Do?

Although not meant to be a how-to manual for climate change, the Pope's encyclical includes many passages of explicit or implied instructions.

Pope Francis's June 18 encyclical on climate and the environment reveals his deep preference for personal acts over institutional endeavors, a horror of consumerism, and a profound mistrust of carbon markets. Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

The Holy Father doesn't give carbon credits or air conditioners his imprimatur. He favors a legally binding climate treaty tailored to the needs of the poor. And he has guidance on natural gas, boycotts, and paying the social costs of carbon.

Fifty-five paragraphs into his wide-ranging encyclical on the global environment and the climate crisis, Pope Francis arched an ecclesiastical eyebrow at how much air conditioning you are using.

"People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity," he wrote, "but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive."

This passing thought is one of many passages to include an explicit or an implied instruction from Francis to his flock.

It reveals a deep preference for personal acts over institutional endeavors, a horror of consumerism and a yearning for moderation, a profound mistrust of markets and the profit motive.

The Pope may come under fire from dug-in ideologues who say that coal is the path to salvation from poverty, or politicians who like to quote Genesis to serve their purposes.

But his message will also engender some serious soul-searching among disciples who simply want to understand what they are supposed to do.

Won't the world's poor, already afflicted by deadly heat waves, need better air conditioning in an increasingly inhumane climate? Is there anything wrong with an air conditioning that runs on wind and solar power (and responsible refrigerants)? Is there nothing righteous in government efficiency standards and subsidies, thermostats and net-zero building codes?

Many parts of the encyclical, with its radical rejection of the throwaway society and its blunt condemnation of business as usual, invite that kind of Jesuitical second-guessing, even from those who are sympathetic to its core messages.

Environmental economists, for example, are bristling at the Pope's plebian mistrust of carbon-credit markets, one of their favored tools for reining in emissions of carbon dioxide.

According to Francis, emissions trading "can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require."

Even one of his top science advisors, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute, wrote in a side report that "putting a price on CO2 emissions—either in the form of emissions cap and trade systems like the one in Europe or the one China plans to set up, or through national CO2 taxes—is an effective instrument to protect the common good."

In other passages, the Pope swims against populist environmental sentiment, and favors mainstream establishment thinking.

A good example is his apparent willingness, even as he calls for a worldwide shift to renewable energy, to see natural gas as a bridge fuel to a carbon-free future, a matter of hot debate in policy circles.

"We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay," he writes. "Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions."

And as ever, Francis brushes aside  population control as a sine qua non in addressing climate change and other forms of planetary degradation.

Many of his views may have policymakers and lawmakers squirming in the pews.

Fundamentally, he wants corporations to pay for the damages being caused by centuries of unrestrained pollution, and for the future damages that business as usual would impose on the world.

That implies accounting for what economists call the social cost of carbon—putting a price on future damages expected from today's pollution. It has engendered fierce debate in the United States, where the Obama administration has been expanding its use.

"Businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved" in their actions, Francis writes. He cites a 2009 encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI demanding that "economic and social cost of using up shared environmental resources  are...fully borne by those who incur them, not by other people or future generations." He cites existing Church doctrine that "the environment is one of those goods than cannot be adequately safeguarded by market forces." And he cites Pope John Paul II on the subordination of private property to the greater good, calling it "a golden rule."

International negotiators of a new climate treaty, struggling to complete their work by the end of this year, will note that he is squarely in the camp of the developing world.

"We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations," he says. "The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable."

He expects rich countries to pay what he calls their "ecological debt" to nations that were left behind by industrialization, a nod to the importance of climate finance, and perhaps even reparations. But beyond offering aid, he writes, "the developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy."

Significantly, he incorporates a key term from the United Nations climate catechism: "there are differentiated responsibilities," he wrote, in emphatic italics.

He said "global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions," making clear that his target is bad corporate actors.

And these, he suggested, might bow before a more mindful, less materialistic public more readily than they kneel before institutions like the United Nations—or the Church.

"A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power," he says. "This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers."

He was silent, though, about the role of responsible investors, and about the movement toward divestment.

The encyclical, after all, is not a how-to manual or a cookbook.

"On many concrete questions," Francis writes, "the Church has no reason to offer a definite opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair."

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