Guest opinion by Joe Ronan
Laudato Si – A cry for the poor
Why is Pope Francis writing about climate change? Because he cares for the poor, and wants us all to look at how we use the resources of the world. His objective is to ask each of us to look at how we use the resources available to us, and how to be good stewards of creation. Whether we consider ourselves as owners or tenants of this planet we are asked to use it’s bounty to the good of all, and to avoid laying it waste to the detriment of our brothers and sisters.
He looks at a number of ways in which the poor more than most suffer from environmental damage that man has control over. The first thing he mentions (paragraph 20) is something well aired on these blogs: atmospheric pollutants affecting the poor, using as an example the breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in heating and cooking. He talks of pollution caused by transport and industry, soil, fertilizers and insecticides. Then he mentions dangerous wastes and residues and the despoiling of landscapes. Again, his concern is primarily for the people these affect, and secondarily for the ecosystem (though he stresses our responsibility for that too).
The climate comes in at paragraph 23 and here the leaked paragraphs that have had such wide coverage are reasonably accurate. Climate is a common good, and science indicates that man is having some effect on this. The language is sufficiently vague that I doubt he’ll end up in a Galileo scenario of pinning his colours to a sinking ship, but there is no doubt that the rather partial advisers he has had have coloured the thinking to a very large extent. Paragraph 24 provides perhaps the most obvious slip up, when it suggests
“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”.
There is no inkling that the pause has been mentioned to the Vatican, or that Pope Francis is familiar with the now infamous twitter exchange where Naomi Oreskes is denying the pause to Doug MacNeal.
The biggest disappointment with this section is how poorly it is referenced. Not even the IPCC is mentioned. Many of the statements should be backed up by source or attribution, but there is none. When the document moves into moral territory there are comprehensive references, so I see this as a real naivete on behalf of the drafters.
Climate change is called a global problem and “one of the principal challenges facing humanity” (25), not the greatest challenge as I’ve seen reported in some places. The concern though is not for the planet per se but for the people, and particularly the poor. That the poor are by their poverty more heavily affected by natural disasters, and by manmade damage to the environment is a concern that I think we can all get behind. The letter also dwells on the related but separate issue of water resources, and the necessity of the provision of clean water. The effects of dysentery and cholera, inadequate hygiene and many other factors are mentioned (29).
He looks at loss of biodiversity, and at some length on the quality of human life and societal breakdown. (43 onwards). This is definitely not a “climate change” encyclical, it deals with much wider questions.
Where the letter becomes really interesting is when it develops themes of how we approach the problems of inequality and systems of politics, economics and governance. Paragraph 129 seeks to promote an economy that favours production diversity and business creativity. I don’t see Jeb Bush having a problem with that!
“Business is a noble vocation (129) …directed to improving the world”.
There is throughout an antagonism to untrammelled markets, especially for global business that appear to ignore national rules and suit themselves. It does however recognise the impossibility of regulating for all possible events, and instead asks for the growth of inner morality – we should know when what we do will harm our fellow men, and we should know to avoid that without being policed.
I think many will read paragraph 182 with a rather different focus than may have been meant in it’s writing:
“ Forms of corruption that conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favours usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.”
and again in 183
“…fully informed about projects and their different risks. Honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political decisions…”
184 continues the theme with “decisions must me made based on a comparison of the risks and benefits forseen for the various possible alternatives.”
Matt Ridley, and Bjorn Lomborg will enjoy that bit, and the following request for proper analysis of the costs and on whom they fall. There is acknowldgement that achieving a broad consensus on policy is not easy, but we are encouraged to have an honest and open debate so that “particular interests or ideologies will not predjudice the common good”. I think we can all say ‘Amen’ to that.
There is a pretty strong attack on the way the banks were bailed out at the expense of the people, and a concern with the centralisation of financial and economic power (189).
The idea of a limit to growth is put forward, and here I think the document fails for lack of reference and a fallback to assertion. The assumption is that there is a zero sum game, and I would not agree that history shows that to be the case.
Politics and economics with their blame passing and corruption are given a going over (198) but science is also said to be powerless if it loses its moral compass. (199).
Throughout the later sections the document is asking for dialogue; how do we protect nature, defend the poor and build networks of respect and fraternity. Open and respectful dialogue is what we need not idealogical warfare.
I would encourage you all to read the final section, even those of you not of a religious inclination. It deals with releasing real humanity from within ourselves, and perhaps is the type of writing that reflects most closely Francis’ agenda – the best flourishing of the human person, and the building of a good society. He recognises that the things that we do to ‘save the earth’ will not change the world, but will call forth from us each “a goodness that spreads”.
It is also a call to joy and completeness as humans, and a call to engage with those around us.
This is a flawed document in many ways: it has had input from a limited range of views, and on the technical side is badly referenced. It paints complex issues in simplistic terms and ignores the whole history of how technological development has been of enormous benefit to mankind.
What it does succeed in doing however is to provoke each of us to consider inside ourselves how we relate to our fellow travelers on this planet. Even though the letter is addressed to the whole world, it’s real target is you. I recommend it to you all, flawed and incomplete as it is, as a look into our own minds, and invites us consider again at our common humanity.