Pope Fallible on Climate Change

Most people think pretty highly of Pope Francis, and I am one of them.  His concern for the poor is exemplary.  His tilt towards gay issues has been widely lauded.  But I am afraid he has been very poorly informed on climate change.

That would be of little consequence, except he is taking the issue very seriously.  Flying to the Philippines on Wednesday, he told reporters  that he will be releasing an encyclical on ecology this coming summer.  According to the AP,

He said he wanted it out in plenty of time to be read and absorbed before the next round of climate change negotiations in Paris in November after the last round in Lima, Peru, failed to reach an agreement.

While he’s definitely right about what happened in Lima, he also is clearly trying to influence the UN process. I guess that’s well and good, after all, the Vatican is a state.  But what is troubling, very troubling, is that poorly informed views on global warming can lead to a tremendously expensive agreement that will do nothing about the climate, while taking away needed resources and exacerbating poverty around the world.

Saturday, in the Philippines, he met with survivors from 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda in the Islands), certainly one of the most powerful storms in recent history. Haiyan reportedly killed 6,000. On the aircraft, Francis said that human activity, meaning emissions of greenhouse gases, was involved. 

A Pope who wants to be as influential as Francis lends great credence to the belief that tropical cyclones (like Haiyan) are being made worse by global warming. These storms are as iconic as polar bears (whose populations are growing) when it comes to generating the political will for a new treaty in Paris. 

It is very easy to see whether global warming is strengthening tropical cyclones.  Dr. Ryan Maue, of Weatherbell Analytics, has examined every storm back to the beginning of global satellite coverage,  for their winds and their duration, which together yield the energy associated with them.  Here’s his result, updated through December 2014:

 

Figure 1. Accumulated Tropical Cyclone Energy, 1972-2014, by Dr. Ryan Maue.  There is simply no relationship between storm activity and global temperature.

The  only way major emissions reductions—of the kind ultimately envisioned by Pope Frances—can be accomplished is to make carbon dioxide-emitting energy so expensive that people will use less, much less.  There’s really no viable energy-dense alternative out there that doesn’t emit CO2. Nuclear fission, which would qualify, is anathema to the same people who want big emissions cuts. His policies will therefore keep the underdeveloped world poor, precisely what he wants to change.

Wealthy societies are much less affected by bad weather than poorer ones. Very strong typhoons regularly strike affluent Hong Kong, with few, if any fatalities.  By making energy unaffordable, the policies Francis wants will impede economic development, so that, decades from now, when a repeat of Haiyan barrels through the Islands, many more will die.