As the leader of perhaps the single largest institution in the world — the Roman Catholic Church — the pope potentially influences at least the Church’s 1.2 billion members, and perhaps millions of others around the globe. His sway makes it critical that when pontificating on matters beyond religion — matters which impact public policy both within and among nations — he acquire and consider a wide range of information from experts across the relevant political, scientific, economic, and philosophical spectra before making his influential pronouncements.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the environment and climate change, about which he just issued an encyclical focused “on care for our common home,” Pope Francis seems to have shrouded himself in confirmation bias of the worst sort, taking in little information that did not conform to his pre-existing anti-capitalist bias and leading to analysis and policy prescriptions that are not just erroneous but harmful.
Before discussing the details of the encyclical, entitled Laudato Si’, it is worth noting that the pope, in a recent interview with the Argentinean newspaper La Voz Del Pueblo, proudly admitted that he has not watched television since 1990, that he does not use the Internet, and that he only reads the newspaper for ten minutes a day — that newspaper being the socialist-leaning Roman daily la Repubblica.
Mix in multiple reports that the pope’s chief climate adviser is a German radical environmentalist who believes that 80 percent of the planet’s population would perish if temperatures rise five degrees Celsius and you have a recipe for a papal proclamation employing the worst warmist paranoia to justify extreme pronouncements regarding ecological morality and international environmental “justice.”
Pope Francis’s naïve and self-serving views on climate change will one day be spoken of in the same breath as the persecution of Galileo for his persistent (but not “consensus”) claims that the earth revolves around the sun.
Let’s be clear: The pope is no fan of capitalism, of the rich countries of the northern hemisphere, or of economic rationality. His desire to help the poor of the world is undoubtedly sincere but his policy inclinations are so poorly informed — both in terms of science and economics — that if implemented they would harm the very people he cares most about. Beyond economics, however, even the morality of Francis’s siren calls for particular international actions is questionable.
Others will provide you in-depth analysis of Laudato Si’, should you choose not to read it yourself. It covers many issues beyond my focus here on Francis’s views on climate change and ecology, including genetically modified food (133), globalization, transportation (like most leftists, he’s a fan of public transportation) (211), abortion and the protection of life as part of nature (120), and the ethics of profit maximization (he suggests consideration of unquantifiable, if not mythical, concepts such as “social costs”) (195).
The pope also touches on the value of “dialogue and transparency” in political decision making (182), oblivious to the irony of his own exclusive and fundamentally dictatorial approach, one which comes easily to leftists whether from Buenos Aires or Chicago or Moscow or Beijing, namely “you’re free to discuss this as long as it does not lead to a conclusion other than mine.” It isn’t primarily an economic point of view that leads to such an approach to “dialogue”; it is hubris, what F. A. Hayek called the left’s “Fatal Conceit.”
And so Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., says on Fox News Sunday that the pope is not offering “a political agenda” even though he clearly is. Wuerl offers a condescending rhetorical pat on the head to Rush Limbaugh, saying that Limbaugh is “allowed to speak (his) mind even if (he) doesn’t have all of the facts, even if (he doesn’t) have a clear view of what the other person is saying.” Of course Rush has a perfectly clear view of what the pope is saying, but Wuerl’s hubris causes him to think that unctuous rhetoric will overcome inconvenient facts. If you can’t beat the message, demean the messenger.
And Wuerl says that the pope’s statements are “very invitational” even though it is clear that Francis’s only real invitation is for you to agree with him. Such hypocrisy. After all, if the pontiff wanted a real discussion he would have had one himself before writing a manuscript with such definitive — and definitively wrong — assertions.
For our purposes today, a summary of the pope’s discussion of climate change will do:
After beginning the document with a quote from Saint Francis of Assisi about “our Sister, Mother Earth,” this other Francis (his choice of papal name being no coincidence with his source of inspiration) offers a hyperbolic and largely erroneous thesis — albeit one with compelling imagery:
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).
The pope bemoans the harms and causes of pollution and returns to a recurrent theme of his, a “throwaway culture,” before exhibiting the confirmation bias that informs approximately all of his understanding of the climate: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.”
In fact, the so-called consensus never was what it was claimed by climate alarmists to be and it is even less so now as honest scientists reconsider in the face of satellite temperature data showing no increase in global temperatures for nearly nineteen years. In short, the doomsday-predicting models cannot be true. (As noted above, Galileo is a great representative of the low value of consensus in science, something you’d think a pope would be particularly sensitive to.)
More damning when it comes to taking the pope seriously are his provably wrong assertions about sea level rise and extreme weather events. Sea level rise has slowed in the past decade and extreme weather has, over recent years, been substantially less than during prior decades despite terrible if-it-bleeds-it-leads news reports of death and destruction from flash floods, hurricanes, droughts, and tornadoes (on the decline recently, unbeknownst to the pope despite the data being easy to acquire).
In short, it is difficult to take seriously pronouncements regarding either public policy or the morality of human interaction with our environment when the discussion is premised on information that even a modestly well-informed student of the subject knows to be false, indeed knows to be nothing more than easily disproved propaganda.
So where is the pope going with this? The first clue is in his own writing: “A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south [an economic construct which Samuel Gregg explains was long ago discredited], connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” (51)
In case you’re still unclear, he continues: “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.”
Translation: The U.S. and the EU owe Argentina and other unsuccessful countries a bunch of money; also, they should implement self-destructive policies at home while subsidizing inefficient programs elsewhere.
In other words, the pope, hailing from the country that has suffered, due to bad public policies and an inclination toward socialism, perhaps the world’s largest relative decline in wealth of the past century, cannot escape Argentina’s persistent economic ignorance and, like leftists of all stripes, ascribes blame for his country’s failure to the success of others and demands reparations therefrom.
And so, per Pope Francis, we Americans have a debt to countries like his because we are more successful in business, more efficient in manufacturing, and — due to our efficiency — use a disproportionate share of the world’s natural resources.
The pope does not take his prescription to its logical conclusion, however, despite that destination being a short intellectual journey from his starting point: Imagine an international organization with the authority to force the United States to use 20 percent less energy and to redistribute that energy to, for example, Argentina, Angola, Bangladesh, and Greece which would then be required to use it to make whatever products the United States produced fewer of due to the policy. (By the way, don’t imagine too hard because there is no doubt that Pope Francis and Barack Obama would both support the creation of such an organization.)
What would result? The inefficient countries would produce fewer and lower quality goods while producing more pollution. Therefore, if the pope’s goal is truly to minimize the pollution produced by modern economies, he should be clamoring for the United States to increase its relative share of fossil fuel use.
Again, this is not a difficult concept. The fact that it seems to have completely escaped the pope’s thinking is a sad tribute to how completely he has insulated himself from information that does not mesh with his pre-existing anti-capitalist, anti-industrial viewpoint. More precisely, it is not just sad; it is harmful. Francis’s attack on modern industrial society completely misses the brilliant Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s fundamental point about capitalism: Its greatest value is to the poor.
Electric lighting is no great boon to anyone who has money enough to buy a sufficient number of candles and to pay servants to attend them. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to a rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.
Other of the pope’s economic conclusions are equally ill-considered and detrimental to rich and poor alike.
Francis’s basic argument is not purely economic or ecological; it is religious as well. And perhaps a more eloquent, or at least more succinct, spokesman for the religious point is John Zizioulas who holds arguably the best job title in the world: Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon.
At a conference of high-ranking religious officials presenting the pope’s new encyclical, Zizioulas — is it a coincidence that he also hails from an economic basket case? — began by claiming that “the fall” (by which I presume he means the fall of man as told in the story of Adam and Eve) has broken “the proper relationship between humanity and the earth”; in other words, our relationship to the planet is tainted by the equivalent of original sin.
And if you’re a priest, what do you require for sin? Repentance of course. And the metropolitan does just that in one of the most disturbing pronouncements I can recall by a senior modern religious figure: “The Church must now introduce in, its teaching about sin, the sin against the environment, the ecological sin. Repentance must be extended to cover also the damage we do to nature both as individuals and as societies.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
And let sink in the Catholic (and I presume, although I’m no expert, the Eastern Orthodox) tradition of repentance having an at-least-partly financial aspect.
And so it is that Pope Francis, per the plain words of Zizioulas, descends from well-intended but deliberately misinformed propagandist to global extortionist.
The pope’s logic, in short: Modern industrialized nations of the north are using too much fossil fuel and therefore owe an ecological debt to the south. The debt is not simply a matter of energy use or pollution generation; it is a matter of sin. The entire societies of those rich nations must repent. Repentance means sending poor countries lots of money. And, hey, while you’re at it, since I, Pope Francis, represent all these poor countries, and since you want absolution for your many sins, I suggest you send a few dollars the Church’s way as well.
I admit that the pope did not say or even imply the last sentence in the above logical chain. But I’ll bet that it’s coming soon to a pulpit near you.
Even if I’ve gone a step too far, though, I ask you to consider the morality of the argument that Francis and Zizioulas have made plain: Your success is to be rewarded with penalty and punishment, the extent of your national manufacturing efficiency is the extent of your national sin, and the punishment for your “ecological debt” will be collective.
In any other circumstance with similar concepts uttered by men not wearing vestments, these would be considered the mindset of muggers, Luddites, or tyrants — none of whom deserve the tolerance, much less the respect, of a free and civil society.
Despite the temptation to consider Pope Francis to be of despotic mind, a wise friend suggests that your Jewish columnist instead adopt the words of Jesus: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And so I shall: although forgiveness is not my strong suit, I reiterate my view that the pope, though sorely and willfully uneducated on basic matters of economics and climate science, is well-intentioned and cares deeply for the poor. I might, however, remind my friend of the words of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: “Hell is full of good wishes and desires.”