As a lifelong Catholic with a long stint as the head of an environmental agency second in size only to the EPA, I am deeply troubled by Pope Francis’ encyclical “Praise to You, Lord (Laudato, Si’): On Care of Our Common Home.” On the one hand, this lengthy, many-layered papal letter can be understood as a rich theological reflection on the human individual’s relationship with the natural world through the eyes of the Pope’s namesake — St. Francis of Assisi. On the other hand, much of the text reads like an anti-capitalist polemic.
The climate issue, however, hovers around the many urgent calls to reverse the “ destruction of creation” and to heal the earth “ laid waste” by human sin! In language topping the hyperbolic rhetoric of the most entrenched warmists, the Pope contends that industrialization has so “ mistreated” our home that the earth is now “an immense pile of filth.” Is the Pope oblivious to the vast improvement in human welfare and environmental quality flowing from modern economic growth?
Since 1800, global human life expectancy has increased over three-fold. Per capita income has increased eleven-fold and global population has increased eight-fold. From 1960-2007, the world population doubled. Instead of the mass starvation predicted by Paul Ehrlich and his Malthusian ilk, food supply per person has increased by 27 percent. Hunger is no longer a question of food supply but of access. The United Nations estimates that poverty has decreased more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500 years.
Market economies and the abundant and concentrated energy in fossil fuels powered this colossal advance. Fertilizer derived from natural gas for amplifies our food supply. And fossil- fueled power remains a necessary condition of the productivity distinguishing the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath from all previous eras. This economic growth has most benefitted the average worker, allowing the emergence of a middle class for the first time in human history. A hasty rush to inferior energy sources threatens these monumental improvements in human society.
Such prosperity also led to dramatic environmental improvements. Sustained economic growth enabled huge investment in technologies that have dramatically reduced pollution. In an understandable rush to electrify, China has severely polluted urban air quality but is beginning to install emission controls. Studies such as the Environmental Performance Index demonstrate that countries with market economies and related legal institutions achieve the highest environmental quality. Fossil fuels have shrunk the human footprint on the magnificent natural world without which woodlands would be felled and crop land vastly expanded. The environmental “filth,” of which Pope Francis speaks, does not describe mature industrialized market economies, but all pre-industrial societies when streets and water courses were packed with excrement and putrefied waste.
The most disturbing aspect of the Pope’s letter is his solution for the “deep crisis” — global governance with teeth. The encyclical recommends creation of a “one world common plan” implemented by a “true world political authority.” This international institution is to enforce the global plan through “functionaries … empowered to impose sanctions.”
Pope Francis may disavow the Church’s meddling in science and politics, but this encyclical puts his office inside those domains. On the day the Vatican released the encyclical, Catholic bishops held a press conference followed by congressional briefings in D.C. It appears the last time the Church became so embroiled in science was when Pope Urban VIII arrested Galileo in 1632.
Also disquieting is Francis’s failure to recognize that his favored policies to avert global warming are increasing the very poverty he seeks to alleviate. The renewable energy to “replace fossil fuels without delay” has left roughly 800,000 households in Germany without electricity because unaffordable at prices now three times higher than the average U.S. rate. And reluctance to finance access to affordable electricity from fossil fuels consigns the poorest of the world to continued misery.
Pope Francis’ encyclical does offer a powerful reminder of how respect for the dignity of each human being made in the image of a loving God “takes us to the heart of what it is to be human.” Yet, a factor most vital to honoring human dignity is missing — liberty guided by a clear moral compass under the rule of law. As the 20th century demonstrated, “common plans” enforced through inevitably totalitarian polity lead to environmental squalor, poverty, and the likes of Dachau and the gulag. On this matter, let us pray that the encyclical evokes vigorous dialogue.
White is distinguished senior fellow and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is a former Chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.