Review of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si”

Pope Frances’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, questions the use of markets to solve the current climate crisis and calls into question the overconsumption in richer countries which emits large amounts of greenhouse gases. A number of right-wing commentators have attacked the encyclical as “Marxism” or have criticized the Pope for getting into areas outside religion such as economic policy.

These right-wing commentators fail to understand that Catholic theology has a long tradition of treating economics as a subject which is governed by religious values. The prohibition of usury during the Middle Ages and Pope Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum or the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor in 1891 are just two examples of Catholic teaching on economics and the organization of a just society. Right-wing American Catholics like Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum have trouble reconciling the fact that their faith regards socio-economic policy as being part of religion’s purview, but they are ignoring over a century of Catholic social teaching.

Pope Frances’ encyclical questions a number of the central tenets of Capitalism, such as the idea of absolute ownership of property and treating nature as something over which humans have absolute dominion to use and consume. A central tenet of Capitalism is excess accumulation of wealth, but Laudate Si says that we should only consume what is necessary and not try to accumulate more than we need.
On the other hand, the encyclical’s emphasis on the importance of all of nature (which the encyclical prefers to call “creation”) and its criticism of anthropocentrism and technology is hardly Marxism. Like Capitalism, Marxism is an ideology based on economic growth and the accumulation of wealth (land, labor and capital) as a means to invest in greater economic growth, which ultimately leads to the liberation of the workers. This encyclical questions the materialist and anthropocentric tenets of both Capitalism and Marxism, plus their Modernist conception of progress, so the right-wing pundits who call it “Marxism” have fundamentally misunderstood it.

Although the US press has focused on how Republican leaders are responding to the encyclical, its critique goes far deeper to the values of current Western society in general. In many ways, the encyclical is criticizing the values held by Democrats as much as Republicans.

The encyclical refocuses the debate on climate change and the environment from being an economic issue debated by technocrats to a moral and religious issue debated by people of faith. The last two decades of climate negotiations show that we need to address climate change as a moral issue, since most people will not be motivated to change by simply listening to the economic arguments for why we should change. Likewise, we cannot rely on technology to save us, since we already have all the necessary technology to address climate change, but we haven’t committed to implementing that technology on a scale capable of significantly altering our greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly we need to look beyond carbon markets and technology to fix this problem. For these reasons, it is vitally important that the encyclical calls for climate change be addressed as a moral issue which forces us to change our priorities and our relationship with nature.

Nonetheless, there needs to be some acknowledgement in the encyclical that not all market solutions share the same moral failings as international carbon markets. For example, recent proposals for a carbon fee-and-dividend by James Hansen and Bernie Sanders do not allow wealthier countries to evade their obligation to cut their own emissions by shifting them to poorer countries. Furthermore, a carbon fee-and-dividend is based on the idea that everyone receives the same amount of dividend to cover the rising cost of carbon so that it doesn’t harm the poor, while still promoting the concept that each person has an equal right to emit carbon, regardless of income. Ideally people will change because of the moral considerations enumerated in the encyclical, but empirical evidence shows that morality is rarely practiced if it runs counter to the logic of the market. In societies where goods and services are provided by markets (which includes the vast majority of countries on Earth today), morality needs to be expressed by how markets are structured. A carbon fee-and-dividend is one way to make the market support and reenforce the type of morality that the encyclical espouses, rather than the market militating against that morality.

In other words, the encyclical needs to engage in a more constructive critique of the market rather than simply point out the moral failings of the market. Instead, the encyclical should call people to reflect on how the market in Capitalist societies can be restructured to discourage overconsumption and encourage people to live up to the moral challenges of climate change. This is not to suggest that we can’t live without capitalist markets, but taking action on climate change in the time frame which the science demand means acting in societies where people’s economic decisions are rooted in markets, so it is best to work within that framework at least in the short term.

Likewise, the critique of technology needs to be more nuanced and constructive. Considering that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are currently 400 parts per million, but James Hansen says that they need to fall to 350 ppm or maybe even 300 ppm to maintain stable ice sheets, we clearly will need to engage in some type of geoengineering to stabilize the climate. Some of the proposals are clearly problematic such as spraying sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere and spreading iron filings in the ocean, but proposals such as using biochar and changing farming practices to absorb carbon from the atmosphere need to be explored. In other words, hoping that we can continue living our current lifestyle by just changing the technology is clearly not going to work as the encyclical notes, but some types of technologies will be necessary so we need to subject that technology to the same kind of moral reflection that we use when thinking about how to restructure markets. Does the technology harm the poorest and most vulnerable in human society? Does it harm other species and the habitat? These are the sort of moral questions which need to be asked.

Another area where the encyclical needs a more nuanced stance is its promotion of the “ecological debt” that the Global North owes the Global South and “differentiated responsibility.” While an ecological debt certainly exists, it is important to keep in mind that all the current calculations of ecological debt are only based upon the burning of fossil fuels and production of cement, and ignore land use change, soil emissions and black carbon. Before 1950, land use change emitted more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and cement, so there is a big hole in the calculations. For countries like the US, Canada or Australia, including these other factors would increase the ecological debt that they owe, but it would also increase the debt owed by countries in the Global South such as Brazil, Bolivia, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and Paraguay which are big deforestors.
We also need to include black carbon in the calculation of the ecological debt. Black carbon is the soot produced by the incomplete combustion of organic material. This soot causes roughly a third of global radiative forcing (1.1 w/m2 out of a total of 3 w/m2), so it significantly alters the calculation of the ecological debt. The wide scale burning of land in South America and Africa produces large amounts of black carbon. Similarly, the burning of coal, biomass and diesel fuel in India and China produces black carbon which darkens the Himalayan glaciers, which in turn has caused them to absorb more heat and melt faster. Black carbon has caused half of the warming in the Himalayan region and will eventually cause the loss of the glaciers which feed Asian rivers such as the Yellow, Yang-tze, Mekong, Indus and Ganges. When these rivers run dry in future summers, the wet rice agriculture which currently feeds 2 billion people will be threatened.

Soil emissions is another factor which is very hard to calculate. The soil holds 3 times as much carbon as the vegetation, so when the soil is eroded and degraded as is happening in the Brazilian Amazon and in large swaths of Africa and Asia (e.g., the desertification of Northern China), there are large emissions of CO2 and methane.

There are so many problems trying to calculate the ecological debt, that many of the countries which owe a debt can rightly question it. We currently cannot calculate it with much accuracy, but if we could calculate it accurately on a per capita basis, countries like Bolivia, Borneo, Belize and Brazil would probably owe a very large ecological debt–a fact that many countries in the Global South want to ignore.

My conclusion after studying the issue is that we should think about the ecological debt on moral terms to pique the conscience of individuals who overconsume and who have emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases in the past. Nonetheless, the ecological debt isn’t a very good framework for international negotiations, nor can it be used very effectively for obtaining aid for developing countries, since it is very hard to calculate and can always be questioned. Reflecting on the ecological debt and differentiated responsibilities as a moral issue is fine, but I would have liked to see some acknowledgement in the encyclical that we currently can’t quantify the debt with much accuracy.

A big problem with the ecological debt is that it currently is being employed by some governments like Bolivia to justify its growing GHG emissions. I have no problem with countries in the Global South who use the ecological debt argument to say that they need aid to invest in transitioning to a low carbon economy and to adapt to the effects of climate change, but some countries in the Global South are using the ecological debt to claim that they have the right to pursue dirty development which will increase their greenhouse gas emissions. Bolivia is one of the chief proponents of the ecological debt in UN climate negotiations, but I calculate that Bolivia currently emits over 40 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita per year, compared to China and Europe which emit 8 tonnes and the US which emits 19 tonnes, so the ecological debt can be used perversely to justify the dirtiest development on the planet.

I am glad to see that the encyclical challenges the values which underpin overconsumption, but I would have liked to see more challenging of the current growth in the Global South. In 2013, the non-Annex 1 countries (which is most of the Global South) emitted 44% more CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement manufacturing than the Annex 1 countries (which is most of the Global North). These emissions from the non-Annex 1 countries are growing 5.6% annually, compared to -0.3% in the Annex 1 countries. I would have liked to see some mention in the encyclical that the Global South cannot keep increasing its emissions and cannot follow the model of dirty development practiced by the Global North. The climate simply cannot sustain the dirty development currently being pursued by many countries in the Global South and people in developing countries have a moral responsibility to question their conceptions of growth and progress, just like people in the Global North.

In order to limit global warming to 2ºC of warming, I calculate that each person on the planet can only emit 2.5 tonnes of CO2e per year in the present day and that amount needs to reduce to 1.9 tonnes in 2050 to account for population growth, but the current annual global average is 6.7 tonnes of CO2e per capita. A number of African and Asian countries currently emit less than 2.5 tonnes per capita, but once we factor in black carbon emissions, the growth rates in emissions and population growth, almost every country on the planet is currently on track to exceed its allotted carbon budget between 2000 and 2049, so every country has a moral responsibility to develop plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. See the section ‘Thoughts on carbon budgets’ in my article Experiences at the Cumbre de los Pueblos in Lima, Peru during the COP20.

In other words, the moral reflection which the Pope calls for in the encyclical applies just as much to the Global South as the Global North. I’m afraid that many people in the Global South will take the encyclical as not applying to them. Frankly, I don’t see much difference between the overconsumption of the rich in Bolivia and in the US. I work in a company where I observe Bolivians who are obsessed with increasing their consumption of imported electronics.

The encyclical argues that population growth is not the problem, but rather it lies in overconsumption. I agree with the encyclical that people in the Global North who use the population growth argument are avoiding their own moral responsibility for overconsumption. The greatest growth in emissions has been caused by growth in consumption and not by population growth, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also address population growth. The best way to control population growth in a way that respects human rights is to invest in health care, social safety nets and the education of women, while strengthening women’s rights. The encyclical undermines women’s rights by focusing on the embryo’s right to life without acknowledging that women’s reproductive rights are also part of respecting and valuing creation.

The encyclical says that humans are entrusted to be good stewards of the Earth, but part of that task in my opinion is to not overpopulate it so that we crowd out other species and use up all the Earth’s natural resources. Taking an absolutist position on the rights of the embryo and prohibiting birth control is undermining our stewardship of the Earth and engaging in the very anthropocentricism which the encyclical criticizes. Moreover, current human population growth is destroying the ability of other species to simply exist, so if we extend respect of life to other species, we have a moral duty to limit our own population.

Pope Francis’ encyclical is a giant step forward in terms of encouraging people of all faiths to reflect on the moral dimensions of climate change and how humanity should relate to the environment. The encyclical is a needed questioning of the values underpinning overconsumption and an urgent call for humanity to place moral considerations at the fore when confronting climate change, rather than simply relying on technology and markets which will maintain wasteful lifestyles and harm the most vulnerable people on the planet. I have pointed out several problematic issues in the encyclical, but these are minor quibbles compared to the central message of the encyclical which should not be ignored.


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