The Vatican is concluding the last week of the 2023 Synod of Synodality, a three-year series of discussions involving Catholic bishops and selected laypeople. They are deliberating on how the Church should address sensitive issues, with climate change being one of the key topics. The final Synod meeting of this series will take place in 2024. Between now and then, Pope Francis has expressed a clear desire to keep climate change front of mind.
Importantly, this Apostolic Exhortation was released on the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the pope’s namesake. It’s not the most holy day on the Church calendar and it’s not a holy day of obligation, but is a very important day personally for Pope Francis.
It’s clear that Pope Francis sees addressing the climate of our “suffering planet” as the central problem to be addressed during his time as pope. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the worldly materialism and waste that contributes to pollution or degrowth policies that seek to shrink family size and depress technological innovation, Pope Francis points to “economists,” “the West” and the United States, in particular, for committing sins against global health yet absolves fossil fuel use in underdeveloped countries and China’s pollution.
This selective guilt assignment of global environmental harm to the United States, and the endorsement of political temperature change predictions are confusing to faithful Catholics, such as myself, who look to the Chair of Peter for wisdom and guidance in our contentious, climate-focused era.
Both Laudato Si and Laudate Deum are chiefly focused on environmental justice. The pope opens his latest paper, “To all people for good will on the climate crisis.” And goes on to broadly define the “climate crisis” as increasing global temperatures and weather events, such as flooding and droughts.
He dedicates a significant chunk of the document to talking specifically about the effects of increasing global temperature and certain intolerable consequences that the world will face if we don’t globally throw everything-and-the-kitchen-sink at preventing a predicted temperature increase. He writes that, “avoiding an increase of a tenth of a degree in the global temperature would already suffice to alleviate some suffering for many people.”
He goes on to say, “the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point…We will feel its effects in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations…”
Those negative effects he listed would better describe the consequences of present, and historic, policy prescription for reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. Restrictions generally fall short of their stated goals, provide little to no measurable impact on global temperatures, limit individual freedom and disproportionally hurt the poor.
Not all that glitters is gold, just as not all policy proposals seeking to address climate change actually improve quality of life. For example, some countries are imposing policies to shrink cattle herds to curb methane emissions, pushing generational farmers out of their homes and likely causing increases for meat and dairy prices.
A more extreme effect of such policies is the reality that China, a resource rich country, uses forced labor for mining minerals necessary for electric vehicles and solar panels. There are real tradeoffs to forcing an energy transition before markets are established to support new energy technologies, and it’s strange that Pope Francis does not mention the painful tradeoffs we’ve observed.
The pope mentions nuclear energy once, and in a disparaging way. He writes, “One need but think of the momentary excitement raised by the money received in exchange for the deposit of nuclear waste in a certain place. The house that one could have bought with that money has turned into a grave.”
In reality, nuclear waste can be, and regularly is, safely disposed of and the technology to reduce waste is ever improving. Nuclear reactors, when they are allowed to remain open, have long lifespans and are safe to have in communities. Rather than describing the hopeful situation of nuclear fusion development, which would revolutionize global energy production, and the present successes of nuclear energy around the globe, Pope Francis treats the only truly reliable carbon-free energy (in terms of production) option with skepticism and dismissal.
Nuclear energy is not a palatable source for electricity, according to him. The only option is to fully “transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy” and abandon fossil fuels and nuclear energy entirely no matter the, as he describes, “petty” personal inconveniences that people must shoulder.
The Biden Administration is already doing exactly that by pushing massive “green” subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, which could cost as much as $1.2 trillion, if not more, and through the pending power plant rule (i.e. “Blackout Rule”) from the Environmental Protection Agency. These actions are trying to aggressively transition the US grid away from reliable fossil fuels, and towards weather-dependent wind and solar power. Many experts have predicted that the proposed power plant rule will cause rolling blackouts and grid reliability issues, hence the nickname the “Blackout Rule.”
Occasional blackouts and insufficient energy generation seem to be costs that Pope Francis suggests people be ready to bear, stating “If we are confident in the capacity of human beings to transcend their petty interests and to think in bigger terms, we can keep hoping that COP28 [2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference] will allow for a decisive acceleration of energy transition…”
Is it a petty interest to want consistent and reliable electricity, especially when we have an overabundance of resources to keep the lights on? In 2023, with all of our global wealth and energy generation choices, darkness is not a penance anyone should be forced to pay, especially due to government folly.
Releasing this Apostolic Exhortation on this particular day communicates what Pope Francis values most, and what he is seeking intercessory help to achieve from Saint Francis. There are about 1.2 billion Catholics globally. So, what the Pope says is of great importance. Lambasting the West, and the United States in particular, is strange considering that breakthroughs in renewable technologies often come from American universities and scientists, and America’s relative emissions impact.
Playing the blame-game isn’t helpful if we are all working towards the same goal—human flourishing and prosperity. Shutting off necessary energy sources without working replacements is a recipe for disaster, and cherry picking or creatively framing emission data doesn’t seed the ground for collaboration.
Instead of communicating the moral dangers of worldly materialism that contributes to pollution, and biting back at the degrowth movement which discourages young people from having children due to “carbon footprint” considerations and emissions impacts, he improperly focuses on extreme weather events, and the moral pitfalls of “economic powers” seeking the “greatest profit.”
We should optimistically accept that, with the right governance models that allow innovators to flourish, our global future will only be brighter and more abundant as we achieve breakthroughs in nuclear energy, battery storage, and technologies that we can’t even imagine today.
Influencing global consumption habits through the principles in Catholic Social Teaching and striving to better care for God’s creation are two very achievable and not scientifically contentious goals that the faithful should focus on. Scolding Western countries isn’t a helpful way to inspire the lay faithful to usher in change and maintain a positive disposition towards family formation and a growing global population.