Few, if any, institutions have the reach and influence of the Papacy, and Pope Francis great charisma has achieved unprecedented media coverage and popularity ratings.  Joseph Stalin made the mistake of underestimating Papal influence, sarcastically remarking ”œHow many divisions does the Pope have?” when asked to temper his persecution of religious believers to avoid Papal condemnation.  But fifty years later, the moral influence of Pope John Paul II helped bring down the Soviet Empire.  Environmentalists, political leaders and business executives alike will be wondering whether the Pope speaking out on the environment will have a similar influence on this year’s Paris global climate talks, and on the debate over the environment and the economy more broadly.

As a Catholic and as somebody who has been involved in debates around energy and climate in different ways for over a decade, I have been anticipating Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.  I  admit I tried to read the leaked Italian version aided by Google translate, but found the process slow going.  Now that I have read Laudato Si (the title means ”œPraise be to you” and is taken from the famous ”œCanticle of the Sun” of the Pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi), I find the Pope’s text to be rather like the proverbial curate’s egg – excellent in parts.

There is much in Laudato Si which I find admirable and inspirational.  Pope Francis offers profound thoughts on the nature of humanity’s relationship with the Creator and creation.  He clarifies the misconception – found both inside and outside Christian circles – that the mandate given to humans in Genesis to have ”œdominion” over nature does not imply a relationship of domination or exploitation, but rather ”œresponsible stewardship” in a mutual relationship with other living creatures.  And as expected, he puts the poor and developing world, who suffer the most due to environmental degradation, at the heart of his reflections, calling on the rich developed countries of the North to acknowledge their « ecological debt » to the poor global South, while rejecting the idea that population control is the best way to deal with ecological challenges in developing countries.  All of this is deeply consistent with the Catholic tradition and the teachings of other recent Popes on environmental and economic issues.

More controversially for some, Pope Francis clearly accepts the threat of human-caused climate change as a scientific reality and calls for strong international action to deal with it.  This has caused consternation among some Catholic conservatives, who either believe that the scientific debate is unsettled, or that the Church has no business weighing in on political matters such as the need for stronger climate policies.  However, I am not among them – it is only prudent for the Church (and policy makers) to follow the consensus of scientific opinion to guide their action on climate change or other environmental issues.  And the best scientific evidence available holds that warming has been happening, and is extremely likely to be the result of human greenhouse gas emissions.  Furthermore, the Catholic Church has been speaking on contemporary social and economic issues for almost a century and a quarter since Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and has a rich body of social teaching that touches on economic and political life.  Some of the critics of the Pope, including some Republican presidential candidates, clearly missed that part of their catechism class.

But where the new encyclical is troubling is in its almost blanket rejection of the free market and technological progress in many passages like this: « The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. » Markets are mentioned many times in the encyclical, but almost always characterized negatively, speaking of ”œthe unregulated market,” ”œthe deified market,” ”œa magical conception of the market,” or that ”œthe market tends to promote extreme consumerism.” Profit is also a dirty word, with Francis condemning the ”œmaximization of profits,” ”œquick and easy profits” and ”œnature… viewed solely as a source of profit and gain.”  While one or two paragraphs praise human technological ingenuity, for the most part technology and the ”œtechnocratic paradigm,” especially when married to the markets and the profit motive, is treated a source of environmental degradation and exploitation.

It is perhaps this suspicion of markets that led to one of the odder passages in the encyclical: its condemnation of ”œcarbon credits” as ”œa new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide,” but rather ”œa ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”  While it is true that there are many dubious carbon credit schemes that amount to little more than selling ”œhot air,” there are also legitimate, certified carbon credits which can provide win-win solutions.  Large emitters – say coal-fired power plants in Germany or Ohio – are assigned compliance targets, but if they can’t meet them, they can purchase credits to fund projects that will reduce emissions – say paying farmers in Indonesia or Brazil to preserve or restore rainforest that store carbon.  Carbon credit systems, often part of cap-and-trade regimes, are indeed complex, and a case can certainly be made for the relative simplicity of carbon taxes as a superior method.  But these kind of price-based market mechanisms are an important tool to deal with greenhouse gas emissions beyond the heavy hand of regulation.  By using market mechanisms, climate policy can be used to find the least costly path to emissions reduction and create incentives for developing new technology.  Suspicion of markets and technology as a means will only slow the pace of emissions reductions.  As leading environmental economist Robert Stavins has said, « ”œI respect what the pope says about the need for action, but this is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments " carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems,”

While the document rightly criticizes the waste and consumerism of a « throwaway culture, » especially in the industrialized West, at times the Pope’s target seems not to be simply the pointlessness of a society with 57 television channels or cereal brands, but economic growth itself.  For instance, one of the examples he gives of ”œharmful habits of consumption” is ”œthe increasing use and power of air-conditioning.” Now air conditioning may seem to be an unnecessary Western luxury when you have the option of opening a window or wearing a sweater and putting up with some mild discomfort, but the lack of air conditioning in France cost almost 15,000 people their lives, mostly among the elderly, during the 2003 heat wave.  The late Singapore President Lee Kwan Yew, who knew more than most about lifting people out of poverty, called air conditioning ”œone of the signal inventions of history,” as it allowed people in tropical regions like the Malay Peninsula to work during the day, instead of only in the early mornings or at dusk.  And if the air conditioner seems to be a consumerist frill, consider Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling’s praise of the washing machine as a revolutionary development which has saved people (especially women) countless hours, allowing for increased productivity, education, and leisure.

A world in which not only the richest one or two billion, but the entire global population could afford air conditioning and washing machines, would require vastly more energy use than today.  If this is to be achieved without significant increases in greenhouse gases, it will require much greater energy efficiency and much greater use of non-emitting sources of energy – renewables like wind and solar definitely, but also large scale hydro and nuclear projects.  But while renewables get favorable mentions in the encyclical, it is silent on the use of nuclear power, which will surely be necessary (along with natural gas, at least as a transitional fuel) if coal fired electricity is to be replaced affordably and on a wide scale.

Similarly, the encyclical is suspicious of technological developments in agriculture which have kept the world’s growing population fed.  Genetically modified crops are said to pose ”œa number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated,” and ”œsmall scale food production systems” are to be favoured over the ”œeconomies of scale” of larger agricultural enterprises.  The Pope’s message here runs contrary to the experience of the Green Revolution in the developing world, under the leadership of Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug and others, which saw agricultural yields grow exponentially, demand for farmland decrease (allowing more forest to be preserved), and perhaps a billion lives in the developing world be saved from starvation.

Technology and free markets have been the greatest contributors to lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the global middle class as we see today in China, India, and Latin America.  But in creating new wealth and growth, largely in tandem with increasing use of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions have increased and with them the risk of climate change.  While economic growth driven by fossil fuels in the developed and now in the developing world has improved life expectancies, infant mortality rates, increased literacy and education – as well as sold millions of new air conditioners and washing machines – we have to recognize that it may now may also be contributing to global warming.

But the answer is not, as the encyclical implies, simply to use the heavy hand of government authority to restrict production and consumption of energy or to redistribute wealth from rich nations to poor ones.  Rather it is to harness the very forces Francis expresses concern about – technology and the market – to find new energy solutions and to find the lowest cost path to reducing emissions.  Pope Francis would have been wise to reread his predecessor John Paul II, who in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus recognized that ”œthe free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.”  Rather than condemning markets, John Paul called for the world’s poor to be given the resources and skills to be able to participate in the market and ”œenter the circle of exchange.”  Just as the global poor need to be brought into the market, environmental externalities need to be brought into the market too to create incentives for action on climate change and reducing pollution.

While many environmentalists fall into the same errors of disdain for technology and the market, few have the reach and moral influence of the Pope.  Pope Francis’ words will reach millions, and if the world’s Catholics and other admirers of the Pope heed his message to care for creation, be mindful of the global poor, and work collectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will have been a great success.  But let’s hope that future Papal teachings will come to see technology and markets as a friend, not a foe, in helping the planet.

Photo by Aleteia Image Department / CC BY-SA 2.0 / modified from original