What Pope Francis gets right--and wrong--about climate change

Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, has many virtues compared with most secular arguments on the same topic. Most positively, it provides a moral framework for addressing climate change that is based on Christian obligations to help others.

This is a salutary antidote to the approach of some leaders, including President Obama, who exaggerate the current impacts of climate change on the United States to promote the idea that self-interest demands action.  Nor does Christian obligation require the assertion that citizens of wealthy countries have caused the current or future plight of poor countries. That idea comes from socialism, not Scripture or historical fact. The limitations of the pope's encyclical are not in its statements about ends, but in some of its recommendations about how to achieve them. And here, science and economics are necessary guides, even for those who accept all the moral guidance he provides.

For example: it is clear to the entire community of experts in climate modeling that phasing out fossil fuels at the pace set by ongoing global negotiations will barely, if at all, slow the growth of greenhouse gas concentrations and the pace of climate change. Nor will phasing out fossil fuels do anything for the current vulnerability of poor countries and failed states, which have suffered from weather events throughout history, and will continue to suffer, however the climate changes.

The poor in wealthy countries, however, will suffer additionally from the efforts Pope Francis proposes to limit emissions, as the price of energy rises against their small and sometimes shrinking incomes. This will be particularly true in the United States if regulations like the Environmental Protection Agency's draconian new rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants are implemented, because they effectively knock out use of the least costly sources of electricity.

On the other hand, Laudato Si persuasively calls for comprehensive analysis of costs and benefits in considering environmental choices, and this tempers its apparently unequivocal endorsement of substituting today’s renewable resources for fossil fuels.

Not all current renewable or energy-efficiency technologies are free of the kinds of pollution cited by the pope in his criticism of such activities as gold mining.  Instead, those "externalities," like pollution from mining nickel for electric car batteries, are simply ignored where renewables are concerned -- in much the same way climate activists charge that businesses behave. An accounting for their full costs and benefits, as recommended by the pope, would put many renewable technologies behind other options for reducing emissions, including expanded use of natural gas.

The larger point about costs and benefits that the encyclical fails to mention is the fact that the vast majority of future greenhouse gas emissions by 2100 will come from other countries -- China, India, Brazil and Russia in particular. And these countries have made it clear that they do not see drastic emission reductions as being in their national interests. Indeed, use of fossil fuels must expand in the developing world to remedy energy poverty -- and it will.

The wealthy countries of today could vanish from the face of the earth, and unchecked emissions from the rest would still drive CO2 levels above the threshold that many climate activists assert will cause disaster for the planet.

With its guidance to balance costs and benefits, it will be unfortunate if the encyclical is used support or even require “solutions” that will leave climate risks undiminished, while making energy more costly for everyone, most notably the poor.

A June 24 letter to Congress from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami -- chairman of a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – seems to have missed this guidance, since it cites the encyclical in support of EPA’s proposed power plant rules. In doing so, it diminishes the encyclical’s teaching authority.

Laudato Si also blames wealthy countries for causing global poverty by exhausting the world's resources. This is simply false. There has been no exhaustion of mineral resources on a global scale, because technological innovation in extraction processes and finding substitutes has provided more of all mineral resources than ever.

Indeed, the encyclical implicitly agrees the world has more than enough oil, gas and coal for all its needs, because it recommends all countries, not just the rich, abandon their use long before the resources are exhausted.

But even if that moral transformation occurs, the most effective way to lessen the harm from natural disasters, whether due to climate change or other causes, is through improvement in the resilience and adaptability of vulnerable populations

Pope Francis diagnoses correctly a lamentable tendency of interest groups to demand particular benefits as part of any effort to deal with broader social problems. But the interests influencing climate policy also include the ethanol lobby, the renewable energy lobby, the nuclear lobby, the anti-nuclear lobby, the new technology lobby, the light bulb lobby, the appliance lobby, and increasingly influential organizations with a vision for human development that the pope condemns.

As a result Congress tends to adopt policies that are ineffective when measured by their environmental benefits but successful in directing money into the hands of lobbyists that the pope never had in mind as the objects of Christian charity.

Pope Francis and his predecessors are clearly correct that only the moral transformation of leaders and citizens will lead to policies advancing the common good and effective measures to aid the poor and vulnerable throughout the world.  And that moral transformation must include the countries that will contribute most to climate change, especially China and Russia.

But even if that moral transformation occurs, the most effective way to lessen the harm from natural disasters, whether due to climate change or other causes, is through improvement in the resilience and adaptability of vulnerable populations.

This in turn requires policies and institutions favorable to investment in infrastructure, agriculture and their areas where vulnerability can be reduced.  And these policies require not only foreign investment that private businesses alone can provide, but also economic freedom and appropriate property rights.

That transformation and those policies and institutions could well be worthy subjects of yet another encyclical.