There is a lot of anxious clamor out there over Pope Francis’s pending encyclical on climate change. Though some outlets have reported leaked passages from the document, I plan to wait for the official version before offering any substantive comments. It could be that the encyclical will say many theologically sound things, and certainly all Catholics are called to take the Pope’s words with the utmost seriousness. And while I imagine that there are many in the Vatican, including our Holy Father himself, who are a bit bashful about admitting this, when the Vicar of Christ speaks, the whole world ought to listen. For Francis is not just “some bishop,” nor is he just the head of “some religious body”; he is the successor of St. Peter, the lowly but steadfast fisherman who was handed the Keys to the Kingdom by God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
But as we all know, climate change is an ideologically charged topic, and there remains a sizable percentage of the human population which is either ignorant of its causes or rejects the present scientific consensus that the phenomenon is man-made. There are also those who deny that the earth is “heating up” at all. On the other end of the spectrum you have those, for various reasons, who accept what I will call the mainstream climate-change narrative: (1) Global temperatures are on the rise; (2) Human—primarily industrial—activity is the cause; and (3) If something is not done about it soon, the results could, and most likely will, be catastrophic. That’s a very general account. I haven’t the time to go into the nuances, nor to sketch out the vast spectrum of proposals—some sane, some not—for how to go about addressing this issue. Needless to say, any attempt to address will, at the end of the day, have to be global—and therein lies the problem.
In their 2010 book, Climate Change Justice, Eric Posner and David Weisbach poured cold water on the feasibility of a global climate-change treaty which concerned itself with economic justice. This is important, for if you peruse the literature on climate change and international law which has emerged over the past 20 years, it is impossible not to run into calls for any and all climate-change agreements to take into account the concrete situations of impoverished nations. What that usually means is that proponents of a climate-change agreement want rich states (which, generally, are located in the northern hemisphere) to effectively subsidize poor states (generally located in the southern hemisphere) by internalizing most of the costs of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, i.e., the primary contributors to global warming. The problem with this approach, according to Posner and Weisbach, is that the same rich states which are expected to internalize a bulk of the costs are the same which are least likely to benefit from a climate-change treaty, at least on the front end. While it is unlikely that any nation in the world will be unaffected by climate change, especially if the results begin devastating significant portions of the planet’s population and resources, the immediate beneficiaries of stopping, if not reducing, global warming will be poor states in the south.
So what is to be done? Posner and Weisbach are not deaf to the reality that northern states, particularly the United States and Western Europe, are, historically speaking, responsible for a bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. However, China has become a major emitter, and unilateral action on the part of the U.S. and European Union is unlikely to have any effect on China’s emission outputs. It is likely that a loss of industrial capacity by one country which is attempting to meet certain reduction benchmarks will be “picked up” by another country which simply does not care. So if global emissions are going to be reduced in a meaningful way, everyone—or just about everyone—has to be onboard. But how do we accomplish this? According to Posner and Weisbach, one way is through a system of transfer payments, where those states which will be made the best off under a climate-change deal compensate those which will be made worse off. And in case you haven’t made it there yet, let me spell it out for you: It would mean poor, southern states offering transfer payments to comparatively much wealthier developed/emerging states like the U.S., European Union, and China to cut back their emission outputs.
That model, for many understandable reasons, does not sit well with a lot of people. I doubt it would sit well with the Pope either. On its face it appears manifestly unjust—because it is. The international “system” (if one can call it that) does not run on justice, and that’s precisely what Posner and Weisbach take into account in their analysis. However, just because two law professors are—a bit ironically—unconcerned with justice (at least as an academic matter), that doesn’t mean the Holy Father ought to be. Indeed, the entire world should be concerned with justice, and I suspect that this is one (of many) things Francis will call attention to in his encyclical. The likely consequences of climate change are too perilous to be ignored; human lives and culture cannot be quantified in dollars or euro; and that those states which are most responsible for the present predicament, and which have benefitted economically from getting us there, have a duty to act.
Morally speaking, I disagree with none of this. What I wonder, though, is how our Sovereign Pontiff, sitting as he does at a time when the Church has largely disavowed her role in the lives of states, thinks his words can tilt the hearts and minds of fine modern men living in enlightened secular polities where material wealth, pleasure fulfillment, and entertainment are the benchmarks of a good life. If the nations of the earth are no longer reminded, as they were less than a century ago, of the duties they owe to Christ the King, what care shall they hold for the admonishments of the King’s servant? I fear that Holy Mother Church may have mortgaged too much of her moral clout in the thoroughly misguided attempt to prove it could “play ball” with secular late-modernity. I hope I am wrong. I pray that I am wrong. I just don’t think I am.