Laudato si’: The Catholic approach to climate change

Laudato si’ and climate change

            Climate change is, not surprisingly, the most controversial and politically charged issue in Laudato si’. It has been a source of heated debate and confusion especially in the American context. In this essay I will outline everything the encyclical Laudato si’ says on climate change and then compare and contrast with the latest scientific, technical and academic knowledge. For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish and analyze the statements on climate change under three divisions: science, policy, and politics and economics. These are artificial divisions since these issues are all interrelated, as the encyclical itself indicates, but they serve our analytical purposes.

[Note: I encourage the reader to glance at my two previous articles on Laudato si’ about hermeneutics and its proper interpretation, so that I am not misinterpreted on climate change, as I believe the Pope has been in many cases).


Let me begin with a thought provoking – and provocative – quote that I believe gets at the heart of the debate on climate change: “Isn’t it a question of everything or nothing? To be quite frank, the Either-Or people seldom appear to practice their own severity. Their uncompromising attitude looks suspiciously like rhetoric.”

These are the words of Romano Guardini, the most quoted author in Laudato si’ and the Pope’s great inspiration for understanding the relationship between man and creation. However, these words are not from Guardini’s well-known critiques of modernity but rather from his more famous spiritual work, The Lord. The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount. Guardini is reflecting on Jesus’ demand to love ones enemies and on how difficult it is to fulfill this in practice. Faced with such a challenge, Guardini proposes taking small steps in the right direction. The quote above is the objection of the Either-Or people to Guardini’s solution: “But isn’t it a question of everything or nothing?”

Guardini then responds to his critics: “No, what the Sermon on the Mount demands is not everything or nothing, but a beginning and a continuing, a rising again and a plodding on after every fall”. My suggestion is that the path forward on climate change requires the same path that Guardini paves for the Sermon on the Mount – a genuinely Christian one. And this is exactly what Pope Francis has given us in Laudato si’. Let me explain.

            This curious parallel between climate change and the spiritual life is not original. The best book on climate change, by climate scientist Mike Hulme called “Why we disagree about climate change?”, makes this very point. Hulme argues that climate change is a very real threat but that to find a solution to this issue we need to explore how climate change can “bring the physical and the cultural, the material and spiritual, into a new realignment… a mirror into which we can look and see exposed both our individual selves and our collective societies” (2009, 357). This is also the central message of Laudato si’ with regards to climate change – a new realignment is needed: “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity…” for which we need “ecological conversion… whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (218).

The encyclical presents climate change within a broader reality, within a context of global pollution and as connected in multifaceted ways with social, political, economic and spiritual factors. The encyclical proposes avenues for action on climate change that are equally diverse and multifarious. The way climate change is framed in Laudato si’ is consistent with an important recommendation in the Hartwell Paper, a document composed by top climate change experts convened in the UK. The authors describe how many people make the mistake of considering climate change as a

‘tame’ problem[s] (complicated, but with defined and achievable end-states), whereas climate change is ‘wicked’ (comprising open, complex and imperfectly understood systems)… The consequence of this misunderstanding… was a fundamental framing error, and climate change was represented as a conventional environmental ‘problem’ that is capable of being ‘solved’. It is neither of these… Rather than being a discrete problem to be solved, climate change is better understood as a persistent condition that must be coped with and can only be partially managed more – or less – well. It is just one part of a larger complex of such conditions encompassing population, technology, wealth disparities, resource use, etc… It is axiomatically as much an energy problem, an economic development problem or a land-use problem, and may be better approached through these avenues than as a problem of managing the behaviour of the Earth’s climate by changing the way that humans use energy. That is reflected in the radical reframing which we employ for this paper…

What makes a problem ‘wicked’ is the impossibility of giving it a definitive formulation: the information needed to understand the problem is dependent upon one’s idea for solving it. Furthermore, wicked problems lack a stopping rule: we cannot know whether we have a sufficient understanding to stop searching for more understanding. There is no end to causal chains in interacting open systems of which the climate is the world’s prime example.

That is frustrating for politicians. So policy makers frequently respond to wicked problems by declaring ‘war’ on them, to beat them into submission and then move on. Indeed, almost any ‘declaration of war’ that is metaphorical rather than literal is a reliable sign that the subject in question is ‘wicked’. So, we have the war on cancer, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror and now the war on climate change…

Climate change “Isn’t a question of everything or nothing” . It is a “wicked” problem that is ill suited to ‘Either-Or’ people who want to beat climate change into submission or deny its existence. In fact, ‘Either-Or’ people are as ill suited to understand climate change as they are to follow Jesus Christ– there is very little room in both areas for severity, uncompromising attitudes and hollow rhetoric – all telltale signs of Phariseeism. The fact is that the debate on climate change, and many of the responses to Laudato si’, have been dominated by Either-Or discourse: either climate change is happening and we must respond Or it is not happening and we must do nothing. This uncompromising view is not the Pope’s approach.

If we look carefully at the Pope’s diagnosis of climate change he is cautious in his scientific affirmations and (disappointingly for some) offers very few concrete solutions. In Laudato si’ climate change is presented as part of a much broader problem that afflicts mankind. Like Jesus himself, Pope Francis is stern about the evil attitudes that have led to environmental and human degradation. But in Laudato si’ the Pope has not declared war on climate change, he has acknowledged it as a reality that must move us to rebuild the world with the love of God.

Therefore, the first thing Laudato si’ got right on climate change was how it framed the issue. Now let us look more closely as how it specifically engages science, policy, politics and economics in relation to climate change.

  1. Science

Paragraphs 23 and 24 comprise the core of scientific statements on climate change, and are copied below. 23 is concerned mostly about the climatic phenomenon and its causes while 24 speaks to the potential effects on the planet. My commentaries will focus on 23, which contain the more controversial statements about climate science.

  1. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. 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. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.
  2. Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.

Paragraph 23 is the key climate change passage of the encyclical. The first sentence states a belief inspired by Catholic social doctrine and therefore derived from the deposit of faith (Scripture and Tradition): the climate is a common good for all. The second statement is both scientific and anthropological, highlighting the meaning of climate and making a simple yet essential point: the climate system is complex. The issue of complexity is essential because accepting and recognizing complexity allows for the recognition of a “wicked” problem where we can only “muddle through” solutions. Many commentators jump into lively debates about climate change before embracing the humility that complexity demands. Because of the complexity of the climate system, climate change is particularly ill suited to Either-Or approaches that lack nuance and sophistication.

All the sentences that follow the general recognition of complexity get into the thick of climate change debate; and all the statements are factually correct, though brief and incomplete. One by one, let me paraphrase and evaluate them: yes, it is true that scientific consensus indicates a disturbing warming of the climate system. It is also true that warming has been accompanied by sea level rise and it “would appear” extreme weather events – as it is true that “scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon”. It is also true that changes in “lifestyle, consumption and production” are needed to combat the human causes of climate change (at the current level of technology). It is also true that natural factors contribute to warming yet most warming in recent decades appears to be man made. It is also correct that most of the man made warming is due to a global energy system based on fossil fuels that release gases which reflect the suns rays and lead to global warming. These are also further impacted by accelerated deforestation (see Hartwell Paper).

While correct, many of these statements are incomplete. Let us explore the limitations of these statements. First of all we must notice the conditional and even ambiguous nature of the language used to make many of the scientific affirmations: “would appear”, “indicates”, “even if” and later (24)… “can lead”, “may witness”. Also, the statement that ‘effect cannot be determined from cause’ for sea level rise and extreme weather events is extremely important, stressing correlation rather than causality. The recognition of natural factors for warming also recognizes the limitations in our understanding of the magnitude and impact of the anthropogenic influence on the climate system. Finally, we must note the facts about climate change that Laudato si’ has not mentioned because simply there is no room for it in an encyclical.

For example, let us pick two specific important and oft-repeated issues that are left undeveloped by the encyclical: extreme weather events and sea level rise. Scientific research on these issues offers nuance and even challenges the implicit affirmations of the encyclical, but does not make them wrong. While it is true that sea level is rising, that this rise mirrors warming trends and that sea level rise could pose serious risks for human populations it is also true that the sea is rising extremely slowly, 1.8 mm a year (the thickness of a nickel), and that half the rise is due to water mining (pumping water out of aquifers) and has nothing to do with glacier melt. It is also true that historical records show a correlation between climate change and sea level rise (including ice ages long before humans emitted greenhouse gases), but in all past cases sea level rise precedes the CO2 increase rather than being its consequence (see the work of Penn professor Bob Giegengak and his baseline studies for the sources of my information on sea level rise) . This historical data challenges the theory that CO2 is causing sea level rise. However, the encyclicals careful language[1] can accommodate different reasons for sea level rise, making its statements technically correct.

With regards to extreme weather events, Roger Pileke Jr. has convincingly shown that there is no evidence of greater incidence of extreme weather events due to climate change (in fact we are experiencing a decade long drought) but only a growing increase of damages from weather events. Both statements are true: there are less extreme weather events and greater damages and losses from the events that occur. Why? There are many more people and property today than there used to be in 1900 and 1950. Even with the smaller amount of hurricanes there is much greater damage than in the past. So Laudato si’ is correct in saying that people are likely to suffer from climate change and most likely incorrect, at least so far, in connecting a greater increase in extreme weather events to human caused climate change. But since the Pope was careful and prudent enough to recognize that effect cannot be established by cause, the fundamental point of protecting human life is well taken, and the climatic implication can be reconsidered.

To finish this section on science, let me just quote a balanced and concise statement on the science of climate change by a group of climate experts:

“Although the natural causes of climate variations and changes are undoubtedly important, the human influences are significant and involve a diverse range of first-order climate forcings, including, but not limited to, the human input of carbon dioxide (CO2). Most, if not all, of these human influences on regional and global climate will continue to be of concern during the coming decades… Moreover, since the climate, as a complex nonlinear system, is subject to abrupt changes and driven by competing positive and negative feedbacks with largely unknown thresholds [Rial et al., 2004], scientists’ ability to make skillful multidecadal climate predictions becomes much more complicated, if not impractical. We recommend that the next assessment phase of the IPCC (and other such assessments) broaden its perspective to include all of the human climate forcings. This should include, but not be limited to, the effects due to all of the natural and human caused climate variations and changes…” (Roger Pielke Sr., et al., 2009)

Here we notice important common themes between Laudato si’ and climate experts: the recognition of natural factors, the pre-eminence of human factors, the affirmation of complexity. All these were synthetically and simply described by the encyclical, demonstrating a balanced perspective and accurate technical knowledge.

2. Policy

The line between policy, science, politics and economics is fuzzy. What I am trying to address in this section are the specific policy recommendations on climate change made by the encyclical. These are found in portions of paragraphs 26, 169, 170 and 171.

  • Energy

Paragraph 26 deals with many energy policy issues. One is the call for an increase in worldwide renewable energy and adequate energy storage technology. The fact that renewable energy access is limited is very well known. The fact that it is important for many reasons, including the reduction of CO2 and other polluting gases, is also well documented and extensive subsidies have been directed to renewable energy technology. It also affirms some progress in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low impact construction but laments the limited scope of such implementation. Paragraph 172 has a section on solar energy and the recommendation for technology transfer that makes a lot of sense, though the proportional impact of solar energy on the global energy system is very low today.

What the encyclical does not say (and doesn’t have to) is that the reason for the low availability and implementation of renewable energy and higher efficiency is that the economic cost of such practices remains very high and can only be afforded through subsidies. It is also does not propose how these difficulties can be overcome; it is rather a call to action. Finally, a much more detailed investigation of energy from a Catholic perspective, in full continuity with Laudato si’, can be found in a recent publication on energy by the Council of Justice and Peace.

  1. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.

172… Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources, but in a way which respects their concrete situations, since “the compatibility of [infrastructures] with the context for which they have been designed is not always adequately assessed”.128 The costs of this would be low, compared to the risks of climate change. In any event, these are primarily ethical decisions, rooted in solidarity between all peoples.

  • Mitigation

The beginning of 26, 169 and 170 all deal with perhaps the most complex policy issue for climate change: mitigation. This concerns the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In these paragraphs Pope Francis recognizes the importance of mitigation, deplores the ineffectual outcomes from policy agreements and mechanisms employed so far and finally condemns the greed and self-interest of some parties as well as the unfair economic burden placed on poor countries. All these descriptions and affirmations seem to accurately portray the current state of mitigation efforts and the critiques identify many of the flaws that exist.

What the encyclical does not say is how to achieve a worldwide mitigation mechanism that does work. In fact, personally I can’t quite think of one that will function given the current standards of technological development and global consumption. Mitigation to me seems out of reach simply because greenhouse gas emission is too closely married to economic development and population growth. Until technology divorces gas emissions from economic growth, the only alternatives for mitigation would be population decline (which the Church does not approve) and economic austerity (which cannot happen unless there is imposed by a global economic catastrophe or sought out through a worldwide conversion of hearts). Do the math: at current technology levels our efforts at mitigation will only achieve minimal results, and no single State I am aware of (except for the Vatican, maybe…) has been able to offset its emissions. The Pope was also wise enough to stay away from demanding certain emission or temperature targets such as 2C or 350 ppm (see the quote at the end of the policy section to see why).

The point made in 170. about reaching justice through “common but differentiated” responsibilities in mitigation practices makes perfect sense, but seems less practically relevant since the developed countries are far from significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. It further highlights an important point that while there is a moral duty to reduce emissions there is an even higher duty to provide the poor with energy access – which ironically calls for a moral imperative that will lead to a growth in emissions rather than a reduction (unless someone wants to claim that the poor should remain poor in order to keep emissions lower). As the Hartwell Paper illustrates, there are still 1.5 billion people without energy and they have a right to energy access.

  1. …With regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few. Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most. The Conference of the United Nations on Sustainable Development, “Rio+20” (Rio de Janeiro 2012), issued a wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document. International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility. Even as this Encyclical was being prepared, the debate was intensifying. We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.

Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries. Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development. A further in- justice is perpetrated under the guise of protecting the environment. Here also, the poor end up paying the price. Furthermore, since the effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now, some countries with scarce resources will require assistance in adapting to the effects already being produced, which affect their economies. In this context, there is a need for common and differentiated responsibilities. As the bishops of Bolivia have stated, “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused”.127

  • Adaptation

Adaptation focuses on the immediate needs of those who suffer the most from the consequences of climate change: most usually the poor. Adaptation is not specifically concerned with the causes of climate change (anthropogenic or natural) but with the reality that people are suffering regardless of the causes and they need preventative and remedial assistance. Paragraph 25 describes the various implications of climate change, and specifically how it affects the poor. While this description sets the table for a call to action for both mitigation and adaptation, it mostly focuses on the latter. Because of the particular vulnerability of the poor to climate change, adaptation often involves addressing poverty. Paragraphs 172 and 175 also contain a call to eliminate poverty. Poverty elimination also implies much broader economic and political considerations – these will be addressed later. But Pope Francis is correct in identifying the priority of poor countries and where they should focus their energies: “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people.” (172) In agreement, I believe this is the best they can do about climate change –adapt and prepare for the consequences by combating poverty.

It seems to me that with regards to climate change the call to action that most aligns with the social doctrine of the Church (and reason) is adaptation. Adaptation to climate change focuses action on the very things the Church and the world should be doing anyway, regardless of the circumstances. The Holy Father is correct in emphasizing this dimension in Laudato si’, and I wish he had been even more explicit about adaptation policies. The Church, through agencies like Catholic Relief Services, already offers important adaptation services.

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and eco- systemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

  • Carbon Credits

Finally, there is a very specific policy recommendation concerning carbon credits. The Pope disapproves of this strategy because it is part of the same economic mindset which has led to excessive consumption and pollution in the first place. What he does not mention is that the carbon credit system does not work because of practical considerations as well, and Australia – the most aggressive country in carbon credit implementation- has overhauled their system. The Pope is correct in disapproving of the carbon credit mechanism as a means to addressing climate change mitigation.

  1. The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. 
  • Geo-engineering

Geo-engineering concerns methods of removing the physical causes of climate change by technological means, such as pumping CO2 out of the atmosphere. There is an important theoretical implication with this ‘solution’, but the encyclical was surprisingly silent on the issue. I wish it had been addressed, even if briefly. Fundamentally, geo-engineering is in many forms an expression of Promethean ‘god play’ by mankind. And there are some serious proposals out there…

To conclude the policy section please read a set of policy recommendations from the Hartwell Paper which are very much in line with the recommendations of Laudato si’:

“All societies are ill-adapted to climate to some degree. In other words, climate extremes and variability imposes costs on all societies (as well, of course, as generating benefits). It is, therefore, important to evolve technologies, institutions and management practices which address the avoidable costs and damages wrought by climate, even more so to build this adaptive capacity whilst climate and society – and consequential risks – both change. These initiatives and the sharing of good adaptation practice make sense irrespective of views on the degree to which climate risks are being changed by human activities or how quickly they are changing. Adaptation policies should be untethered from those focused on decarbonisation.

These three strategic goals need not – indeed must not – be stitched together into one single impossible policy package, where connections between ends and means become inextricably intertwined. When connections between ends and means become obscured, policy discussions are too easily hijacked by diversionary disputes, such as the argument about whether or not the science behind preventing a two degree global temperature target – or indeed any comparable global target – is sound. Similarly, the degeneration of debate at Copenhagen from windy rhetoric about planetary emergency into hard anger from many NGOs and ‘global southern’ states was revealing. When the large, rich states refused to agree to the cash transfers that were being demanded, it displayed how different interests and agendas were concealed within utopian talk of global and universal solutions.

…Under it, the political priority of governments would switch from the preoccupation with emissions targets under the previous “Kyoto” regime to credible long-term global commitments and methods to invest in energy innovation.83

…Thus, improving the efficiency of solar panels, improving the energy density of electric batteries and fuel cells, development of Third Generation (cellulosic) bio-fuels, and solving the design and materials challenges associated with mass manufacture of small, self contained nuclear plants are clear technical challenges upon which clean energy research, development, and deployment efforts must focus. These improvements must achieve cost and performance improvements that will not come about in the absence of determined participation of governments.

Such efforts must be led by the public sector for several reasons. (31)”

III. Politics and Economics

Because climate change is a “wicked” problem nested with so many other issues, it also becomes a vehicle for debating political and economic ideology. In my thesis on climate change I quote Steve Rayner who illustrates the point eloquently: “climate change provides a much needed arena and stimulus for public discussion of the big issues of our time… It has become the key narrative within which political issues from the local to the global are framed” (Hulme 2009, xxiii). As a metanarrative for our times… when questions of truth emerge with regards to climate change, the truth about many of these other issues are also being debated, challenged and resolved.”

In the political arena, in which dialogue tends to become so truncated, climate change often becomes an outlet for the exasperated release of ideological rhetoric. It is not surprising therefore that in the US with its hyper-politicized culture an environmental encyclical has been received with so much controversy. This to me is the fundamental reason why so many people, left and right, get riled up about what Pope Francis said on climate change: in its guise they can hash out their deep seated political and economic convictions. In the American political arrangement which is a de facto incarnation of an Either-Or approach (Either Democrat Or Republican), climate change has been pitted as the agenda invented by one party over and against another party that professes its denial. This hermeneutical reality makes it impossible for Pope Francis to say anything intelligent about climate change; since whatever is said will imply favoring one camp over and against another. The problem isn’t the Pope engaging the issue of climate change, the problem is the Either-Or hermeneutic that dominates political discourse.

The truth is that Laudato si’ says nothing at all about conservative or liberal politics. The Pope mentions the need for international cooperation and rejects carbon credits – which can all be construed by Either-Or ideologues as partisan politics. But word for word, the Pope does not make political statements about climate change. What he does, in paragraphs 26, 51, 172 and 175, is speak about the relationship between climate change and economics – and these statements have important political implications. This economic commentary is consistent with the Pope’s overall economic vision expressed throughout Laudato si’, Evangelii gaudium and his pontificate at large.

If there is one issue Pope Francis rails against in relation to climate change it is economic inequality, fueled by a global economy that runs on “unbridled consumerism”, and more recently the Pope called this form of greed “the dung of the devil” (in a speech in Bolivia… see below). For Pope Francis this is one serious issue at the heart of all environmental problems, including climate change: the idolatry of money manifested in unbridled consumerism. Below the section of the Bolivia speech:

“The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”

The Pope’s tirade against the worship of Mammon is not new and has led to many negative reactions in Evangelii gaudium, as did Benedict XVI’s condemnation of the global economic system in Caritas in veritate. I don’t think it is a coincidence that when the worship of money is challenged, along with the economic mechanisms that foster it, even some faithful Catholics begin wavering on their allegiance the magisterium. In the American Either-Or political arrangement one way to disagree with the Pope’s position on economics is to pick a side on climate change. But in fact what many commentators are trying to push against is the challenge to consumerism, technocracy and misguided anthropocentrism[2] – all in all, the modern project (the most clear minded commentators have been able to identify this, see Linker here and Rusty Reno here).

Climate change allows the Pope to speak about the underlying disease hosted in the ailing corpus of modernity. And the festering wound that the Pope dresses first is our global economic arrangement. This is the right key to play because it gets at a much deeper issue than the discussions allowed by partisan political quibbles. The real discussion is not political but economic. George Grant puts it even more bluntly than Guardini: “All political arrangements within the system, the squalls on the surface of the ocean… take place within the common framework that the highest good is North America moving forward in expansionist practicality… The directors of General Motors and the followers of professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.”(28.30) Grant continues by explaining what ‘the system’ is about: “the core of the twentieth century – the unlimited mastery of men by men…” where “there can be nothing immemorial for us except the environment as object. Even our cities have been encampments on the road to economic mastery.” (17).

Building upon Grant’s stark analysis, we can try to outline the face of modernity as ‘self-determined mastery’. This modern face is composed by the hawk eyes of technocracy that set a vision for conquest and consumerism as the maquillaged facial exterior that holds everything together in a fake, excessively adorned unity. That being said, I don’t think the Pope proposes is the wholesale rejection of modernity, but rather its reconciliation and purification. The Church does not want to overthrow modernity but to purify its vision through an Other-determined mastery and to cut down on the ‘make-up’ which washes away once unity is found in something other than consumptive acquisitiveness. The path forward for the purification of modernity is the same path of the Sermon on the Mount, “a beginning and a continuing, a rising again and a plodding on after every fall.” How is this critique of modernity and its economic arrangement relevant to Laudato si’s take on climate change?

Climate change, for Pope Francis, is the symptom of something else. Patrick Deneen has recently described ‘this something else’ and applied many of Grant’s insights into the modern American context. In an article spurred by the recent opposition to gay marriage laws in Indiana, Deneen demonstrates how politics is the slave of the economic interests of the “power elite”. If we apply this diagnosis to Laudato si’, it also illustrates how Pope Francis rightly focuses on the idolatry of money as an underlying ill that drives our unbridled consumptive system which reeks of the “devil’s dung” (as St. Basil might say).

“The decision by Apple, Walmart, Eli Lilly, Angie’s List, and so on was a business decision—even more, a marketing decision. Coming out in opposition to the Indiana RFRA law was one of the shrewdest marketing coups since E.T. followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces. The decision to #BoycottIndiana was not made because it was the politically courageous thing to do; it was made because it was the profitable thing to do… There is a deeper reason for corporate support, however. ­Today’s corporate ideology has a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a “progressive” outlook in which rapid change and “creative destruction” are the only certainties. The response to Indiana’s RFRA law shows very clearly that corporations have joined forces with Republicans on economic matters and Democrats on social ones. Corporate America is aligned with the ascendant ­libertarian portion of each party, ensuring a win for the political, economic, and ­social preferences of libertarianism. In effect, there is only one functional party in America today, seemingly parceled between the two notional parties but in reality unifying them in its backing by financial and cultural elites. What this means is that today’s cultural power elite is entirely aligned with the economic power elite, and they’re ready to steamroll anyone in their way.”

The left and the right in America are both slaves to the power elite whose fundamental interest is economic. The power elite seeks the economic liberalism of the right and the social/moral liberalism of the left since both ideologies further technocracy and consumption. This is of course simplistic in many ways, but essentially the heated debate about climate change in political Either-Or parlance is about money, how it is used and where it goes. To move beyond this partisan conversation, Laudato si’ challenges the unhappy marriage of consumption with technocracy that tramples everything in its way.

With Laudato si’, the Either-Or defenders of unfettered consumption bear the brunt of the tirade since the environment is one important reality where the evils of our economy reach its limits. But soon I anticipate that Either-Or moral libertarians will be also disillusioned when Pope Francis speaks loud and clear about the family and the evils of gender ideology, contraception and morality in general. It is in the moral sphere where the ideology of the left encroaches on the path of the Sermon on the Mount. I think the Pope will eventually disappoint the Either-Or people on both sides. Let me even throw out a wild guess founded on nothing substantial: Pope Francis’ next encyclical will be about the family. Modernophiles: brace yourselves…


  1. Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption.
  2. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south… The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.
  3. For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively. They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet.
  4. The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions.

[1] “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”

[2] I have commented on these connections in my previous post: The villain in Laudato si’  is a “misguided anthropocentrism”, the hallmark of modernity (116), which means that the “human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”. When we forget God and think of ourselves as masters, that leads to a misguided lifestyle, filled with unbridled consumption, technocratic manipulation, practical relativism, the throwaway culture and so many other ills. The culture of consumption and misguided technology take an especially serious beating.

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