The pope is not a liberal

That’s the upshot of my op-ed in the New York Times today.

For those who are wondering, these things are really hard to write — you have to cram so much into such a tiny space, there really is no room for nuance. The Times asked for 1000 words, I delivered 1250, they wound up having space for 850, so 400 words had to go!

Part of what went were the sections where I expressed my appreciation for the encyclical, which I actually think is an incredibly positive contribution to the current debate. If one thinks of how much damage the Church has done with respect to the population issue (and it’s important to remember that, back in the ’60s, the Church really could have gone either way on the contraception and abortion question), it’s absolutely wonderful that Pope Francis has positioned the Church on the right side of the climate change issue. It’s also been great hearing U.S. Republicans taking a firm line against the intrusion of religion conviction into the realm of public policy…

Here is some of what got chopped out:

This skepticism about market-based solutions to climate change is, in my view, unwarranted. But the sentiment that it expresses is a rather common one, and since Francis has provided an unusually detailed presentation of the reasoning underlying his version of it, it is worth examining.

I should note, at the outset, that I find nothing objectionable about the most widely remarked-upon feature of the encyclical, which is the moralizing tone that Francis brings to the discussion of climate change. The language of “sin” strikes me as perfectly appropriate to describe the wilful blindness or obstinacy of those who refuse to make any changes to their lifestyle, despite the enormous cost that our consumption of fossil fuels is imposing upon future generations.

After all, what are we to make of politicians who rage against government deficits, condemning them as immoral because of the burden that they impose upon our grandchildren, but then refuse to even acknowledge the far more serious problem of climate change?

Rest assured, future generations will most certainly curse us, and probably spit on our graves. But which are they most likely to be upset about, the fact that we left them a slightly larger debt to service, or the fact that we changed the composition of the earth’s atmosphere in a way that makes the planet less suitable for human habitation?

So no, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to talk about “sin” in this context.

Finally, for those who like to come here for the “Straussian” reading of my work, here it is. A major part of my objective in that op-ed was to create cognitive dissonance among conservatives who oppose taking action on climate change. I’m happy to serve as the Times’ “right-wing” critic of the Pope’s encyclical, if it helps to show just how far outside the scope of reasonable disagreement people like Stephen Harper or the current contenders for the Republican leadership in the U.S. are. Also, I enjoyed using the term “liberal” in its correct sense in an American publication. Again, more cognitive dissonance.

I also just wanted to emphasize that, in order to understand the positions that Pope Francis takes, whether it be concern for the global poor or suspicion of the market, you don’t need to have any exotic theories about his background or motivation. All you need to do is recognize that he is a Christian who takes his faith seriously enough to think through its moral and logical implications.


The pope is not a liberal — 8 Comments

  1. Of course you are correct in using market based economics on this issue but to actually answer the Pope on his scientific understanding of Global Warming is to neglect his belief in exorcism. The Church has been anti-science for 2,000 years and it has not stopped. He’s a fool, period.

  2. I’m surprised you weren’t much harder on Pope Francis than you were. This encyclical is a textbook example of the failure to understand collective action problems that you’ve criticized environmentalists for in the past (including on this blog, in the post “Hobbes’s difficult idea”).

    Indeed, this encyclical is just a Catholic version of the “WE MUST CHANGE EVERYTHING” approach to environmentalism, whereas in fact what we need to do is set up a few well-targeted policies to solve collective action problems.

    Francis explicitly rejects the approach of finding some well-targeted policies: “Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (§ 139). He also makes sure that the subject matter of the encyclical isn’t just global warming, or even pollution in general, but also global poverty, weak institutions, and all the social ills that he alleges are the result of a “technocratic paradigm” (§ 109)—a “cult of unlimited human power” (§ 122)—that has gripped the modern world. Naturally, the only solution is a “bold cultural revolution” (§ 114), which involves worker co-operatives (§§ 112, 179), because of course it does.

    It would be bad enough that Francis grossly mischaracterizes the nature of the problem if he did not also condemn solutions to it that would actually work. Weirdly, he claims that cap-and-trade doesn’t work, substantiating that assertion with precisely no evidence (§ 171).

    This is seriously disappointing, particularly because Francis nicely captures the ways in which climate change *is* a moral issue, since it will cause the greatest harm to the people in poor countries who are least responsible for the occurrence of climate change. And I suppose it’s nice that such a politically influential figure is coming out in favour of international cooperation to fight environmental problems. But the approach Pope Francis advocates to solving environmental problems is so misguided that I can’t feel very good about it.

  3. Part of the problem surely lies in the Pope’s reading list. Notice that throughout the encyclical, there’s not a single reference to anyone outside the Catholic theological tradition. There’s no evidence that Francis is widely read on the relevant philosophy, economics, or social science. That’s fine if all he’s expecting to do is rally the troops by having a conversation among insiders. But it’s another reason why his argument is unlikely to find much of an audience outside his own tradition.

  4. How can a market-based approach to controlling greenhouse-gas emissions reflect the moral principle of efficiency while at the same time refusing to judge the relative merits of people’s desires? Doesn’t it judge those who desire efficiency favourably?

  5. Our best hope for clean power is to start investing in nuclear power, but to do so we need to undo the decades of damage done by environmentalist groups railing against it based on poor understanding of the science. Sometimes I really do think these people are misanthropic.

    • I think the events in Japan demonstrated that catastrophic failures of nuclear plants are still possible and can have great environmental consequences. Even without this sort of black swan risk, nukes remain capital intensive and highly inflexible. Electricity conservation is having a greater impact every year, and coupled with the increasing viability of local battery storage, it’s apparent that the future growth market for electricity generation will be distributed renewable generation (i.e. solar and wind) and other forms of highly efficient distributed generation like small scale natural gas and combined heat and power faculties. Furthermore, large-scale energy storage will facilitate electricity peak-shifting that will likely reduce the economic case for nuclear expansion to zero over the next 20-30 years, at least in developed countries.

  6. Just as waiting around for everybody to achieve a spirituality-based commitment to needed action is impractical and too slow, might one not also ask if merely calling for global taxation schemes is specific and speedy enough? We need to take quick, concrete steps to start radically rebuilding our polluting, resource-wasting infrastructures, not least the ones that compel us North Americans to rely on automobiles for so much of our mundane locomotion. Isn’t waiting for tough global cap-and-trade to compel such reform itself a rather abstract, slow, and blunt approach? Don’t we also need pointed explanations of the problems and corruptions with things like cars-first transportation?