Commentary

Pope Francis Recycles (Stale Arguments about Climate)

Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ is, in parts, passionately and beautifully written. And it really is about recycling — of old, tired, and discredited ideas.

Much of it reads like the disproven doomsday predictions that have been churned out since the early days of the environmental movement. In his 1968 classic, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich wrote that by about 1983 India would be “gone,” hundreds of millions would die in famines (caused in part by global cooling), and there would be human “oblivion.” In their 1972 book The Limits to Growth, Dennis and Donella Meadows confidently predicted we would be out of oil, most food, and breathable air by 2000. It is against this historical backdrop that Pope Francis writes that “doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

My generation has lived through eight environmental apocalypses, including the two cited above. We have good reasons for disdain.

Since Ehrlich and Meadows, human ingenuity discovered vast amounts of oil and gas beneath our feet, food production per capita increased smoothly and smartly, and countries with free economies cleaned up their environments. What will happen after Francis’s encyclical?

Pope Francis practices what Mikhail Gorbachev would refer to as “old thinking,” in this case, that free economies can’t solve the “problems of global hunger and poverty,” and that they somehow destroy their natural resources while being incapable of dealing with climate change.

Where does he get this stuff? Since the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy has doubled in the developed world, per capita income has grown elevenfold, and wealth as been democratized far beyond the wildest opium dreams of Karl Marx. This happened in energy-driven free market economies, not the command-and-control world that Francis envisions. Crucially, the developed world brought into existence by overcoming energy poverty is largely immune to the vagaries of weather and climate. Poor countries are not.

Make no mistake: limiting access to energy will keep people poor and life short. Solar energy and windmills are never going to power a major modern city, and therefore they will never run a modern nation. With the exception of geographically-limited hydropower or sometimes unpopular nuclear fusion, the only way to avoid a life of poverty, infirmity, and vulnerability to climate is through the use of fossil fuels. They have been the engine of wealth and progress.

Instead of promoting the access to dense energy that the developing world desperately needs, Francis proposes an international authority to enforce environmental diktats emanating from the United Nations. This includes handing over $100 billion a year from developed nations to the underdeveloped to spend on technologies incapable of substantively boosting their quality of life.

He asks Catholics to pray for the nations of the world to agree to a new climate treaty in Paris next December. Since there will be no agreement without the Green Climate Fund shakedown, we’ll be paying an energy tithe. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of votive candles lit for this.

He even teaches why the world has been so reluctant to until now to agree to a global authority on climate change: “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” He could have been more economical with words here, simply noting he believes only foolishness or evil could compel someone to want to light their home, reliably power a hospital’s incubators or join the global economy.

How is such information “manipulated”? On the internet, of course: “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely.” So, governments need to censor impure thoughts: “Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches.” While the Vatican from which Francis speaks might be an absolute monarchy, this sort of media tinkering seems discomforting in a democratic society.

What could be more “old thinking” than recycling the failed apocalyptic environmentalism from a half-century ago, substituting command and control economies for free markets, taking away money from productive nations and giving it to poorly-run countries to invest in energy technologies that will keep them impoverished, and blaming corporate bogeymen for our reluctance to commit the economic suicide that Francis urges us to pray for.

Patrick J. Michaels is the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.