POV: Making Climate Change a Moral Issue
Why we should listen to Pope Francis
For too long, ideologues, deniers, and vested interests have prevented an appropriate, righteous response to the grave dangers of climate change. Now, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, has a retort to those who still question if climate change is real: is the Pope Catholic? Pope Francis, through his recent 184-page encyclical on the environment, speaks in a strong voice about the seriousness of humans altering natural systems. All people, irrespective of their personal faith (as well as agnostics and staunch atheists), should reflect on the pope’s fundamental message.
The Catholic Church has a checkered past when it comes to embracing new scientific arguments, especially those that are seen to challenge deeply held beliefs (see Galileo’s work on the heliocentric solar system model). But Pope Francis takes a position right in the middle of the scientific community when he describes the basic drivers and consequences of human-induced climate change. On this issue, members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, including world-renowned Nobel laureates and climate scientists such as Mario Molina, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, guided the pope. The Vatican is debating whether to divest from fossil fuel companies.
However, the most critical part of the encyclical is not on science; it is the very powerful case for seeing climate change as an urgent moral issue. Pope Francis echoes the concerns of others when he argues that it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who are mostly starting to bear the brunt of the costs associated with a changing climate, and that will only increase. As true as this is, it is a perspective that is woefully neglected in many global and national political debates, which remain narrowly centered on limiting the costs of cutting emissions and how to pass on responsibilities and obligations to others.
Any meaningful response to climate change must involve government action in the name of the common good, coordinated across national borders. Governments have the authority to formulate economic and energy policy and set environmental and human health standards. Unfortunately, what we have seen so far in preparations for the major climate change conference in Paris in December indicates that the outcome of that meeting will fall far short of what is needed—not preventing climate change (which is already happening), but even meaningfully reducing human suffering and ecological damage.
Pope Francis highlights that climate change is an economic, social, and environmental issue that permeates all societal levels and sectors. Climate change’s moral and practical dimensions, for both current and future generations in the context of growing inequalities, call for a variety of responses and initiatives. Many of us who live relatively affluent lives are reluctant to take a hard and self-critical look at our own consumerist lifestyles, but Pope Francis implores us to do just that. He correctly argues that we have nothing if we destroy the ecological basis of the planet that we inhabit in the name of wasteful production and consumption in our “throwaway culture.”
Francis reminds us that as we reduce poverty and other human sufferings, a “development first, environment second” mind-set is no longer possible (if it ever was). With a globally growing middle class and population, increased conservation and use of renewable resources only grow in importance. Such a change offers opportunities for the design of much more desirable and inclusive ways of organizing our societies. Here, Pope Francis offers a meaningful caution that technology alone cannot save us (though some of the encyclical’s misgivings about using modern technologies and economic incentives to drive behavior are misplaced).
Pope Francis’ forceful language that fossil fuel use “needs to be progressively replaced without delay” draws attention to larger energy discussions, including the divestment debates gaining momentum on campuses and among major financial managers. As university leaders, students, and faculty consider this symbolically and existentially important issue, the pope’s message of compassion is clear; we have an individual and collective responsibility to ask what kind of world we want for ourselves and for those who come after us, and we must act accordingly.
Do we possess the courage to take necessary steps on climate change?
Henrik Selin, a Pardee School of Global Studies associate professor of international relations, is the author of European Union and Environmental Governance (Routledge, 2015) and Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals: Challenges of Multilevel Management (MIT Press, 2010). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.
Congratulations to my Pardee School colleague Henrik Selin for his timely comments on Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment. The Pope is on a roll–he’s becoming perhaps the most progressive world leader on the planet at this historical moment. Yes, the Church still has its issues (e.g., the role of women in its institutional hierarchy), but right now its pontiff has taken on a role that no other world figure has even come close to. His basic message on the environmental issue, along with many others, is that the “greed is good” ethic that underlies the functioning of the current capitalist system must be dismantled. It’s a message, I might add, that draws inspiration from the very origins of Christianity.
Thank you for this editorial Prof. Selin; well done. The Koch bothers would disagree with you, however, and it’s unnerving how many of the Republican candidates are denying climate change. I guess agencies like the EPA and NASA must have it wrong.
Does Professor Selin also agree that we should take the steps that the Pope suggests in the same Encyclical regarding abortion and gay marriage as well?
Just because someone is wrong about some issues does not make them wrong about everything.
Written like a true denier.
I am a medical student at BU. I have friends and colleagues who don’t take climate change as seriously as I do. I have colleagues who don’t support fossil fuel divestment like I do. I imagine I even have colleagues who don’t think climate change is an issue at all.
Despite that, I know that many of these friends and colleagues will make wonderful physicians, whose medical advice I would trust and readily stand behind. So again, just because someone is wrong about some issues, does not make them wrong about everything. Just because my colleagues and I may disagree about climate change does not mean I dismiss their other opinions or ideas altogether. Just because you disagree with the Pope’s stance on certain social issues does not mean you should automatically disagree with him on the issue of climate change.
If you choose to disagree, fine. But at least let’s not use that as an excuse.
Paige, I appreciate your point of view, unfortunately you won’t break any ground with science-denying black and white ‘shop until I find ‘news’ that agrees with my point of view’ individuals.
Anyone who looks hard, cold facts in the face and decides (for SOME reason!) it must not be true after looking at ‘studies’ funded by fossil fuel companies…I just can’t take their point of view seriously.
That said, totally agree with you!
But if he’s wrong about some things, then you’re not really citing him as an authority, are you? Instead, you’re dishonestly misappropriating his (misinterpreted) statements as a way of clubbing Catholics who disagree with you on the global “hide the decline” – oops, I mean global warming. What a profoundly hypocritical statement.
Thanks for this review of the Pope’s statement. I’ve long felt that the planet we live on and the living things on it are sacred,as sacred as whatever it is that might exist in other dimensions (life after death for instance).
It is good to hear the Catholic Church reflect on the realities of our material existence.
Since Many of us who live relatively affluent lives are reluctant to take a hard and self-critical look at our own consumerist lifestyles it is high time that we see climate change as a moral issue.
Yes indeed the Pope’s in-depth, evidendence-recognizing wake-up call reinforces one of my basic mantras — that each one of us needs to put in place for ourselves as individuals as well as on a lager scale, an earth-centered ethics. Without a healthy, viable place — in this case the earth and its systems that sustain us each day — little else makes sense and littler else has a future. Humility is central to this…we cannot begin to a “fit” with the planet as long as we see humanity, as well as operate personal and policy-wise, above Nature. If one has trouble as to where to start, consider starting with oneself with a change in habits and a comprehensive daily consideration of our best “friend,” the biosphere. Thank you Henrik for calling further attention to this very important statement from Pope Francis.
I find that many questions are being begged in this piece. The first is that the trends in climate variation over recent decades are harmful, when in fact the gentle warming we experienced in two separate periods in the 20th century has surely been beneficial. No such warming has taken place in the present century, and indeed the possibility of cooling over several decades has been raised in several quarters, not least in the British Meteorological Office. Cooling is far less likely to be beneficial, and will generally require increased energy consumption to help us cope with it. Increased energy consumption seems inescapable anyway if the world’s poorest nations are to raise their standards of living, and their care for the environment, dramatically in the near future. Affordable energy and private enterprise were and remain crucial for rapid social and economic progress around the world, and both are denigrated by the views being expressed by the Pope recently.
Mr. Shade is author of much climate denial propaganda that avoids majority scientific opinion and bends common scientific knowledge to fit his writings as he trolls around the internet spreading misinformation. Just saying so as you folks reading can take his drivel with a grain of salt.
“a horse of course” is the author of much climate change propaganda that avoids reported scientific facts showing global cooling and dishonestly conceals “hide the decline” and other once-private admissions by climate change advocates that they don’t actually know what’s going on and can’t account for their own scientific measurements. Just saying so that rather than relying on unsubstantiated drivel you can actually search the internet yourselves and determine whether climate change is as true a scientific fact as gravity.
Such harsh comments from an anonymous source would seem to call for the support of some specific examples. I leave readers to consider how well my previous comment might qualify as one.
Being a relatively short opinion piece, yes there are certain elements that are important that are not covered. — The major one you brought up, a minority viewpoint of less than 5% of climate scientists, was not addressed.
Can you point to any of the science-related points I made that you might disagree with? As for ‘climate scientists’, they are not a well-defined group, nor has there been a respectable survey of them however defined in order to ascertain their views on these or any other aspect of the climate. At least, none that I am aware of. I do know of some spectacularly incompetent ones.
If Pope Francis is authoritative enough to speak on climate change, then his teachings about sexual relations – against abortion, gay marriage, contraception, non-marital sex, masturbation – must also be authoritative. Otherwise this entire article about Laudato Si – which is in fact nothing more than a change in emphasis consistent with existing Church teaching and statements from Popes Benedict and John Paul II – is nothing more than a dishonest attempt to silence an authentic discussion the degree of climate change and the role of anthropogenic factors in such change.
Also, please don’t blame the Church about Galileo without mentioning that heliocentrism was proposed in Catholic Europe almost a century earlier by Copernicus, himself a Catholic brother or priest, and elaborated fifty years earlier by Kepler. Far from blocking science, it was specifically Christianity that gave the philosophical and epistemological structure that allowed scientific inquiry and technological progress to mushroom from the late Middle Ages to the present.
Actually, no. That’s a false correlation. He speaks about abortion and sexual relations as a man of faith.
You’re saying if someone is right about ONE thing, they must be right about every other thing they say? That’s laughable. You can understand why that’s absolute hogwash, correct?
I am certainly no scholar of religion, but I can appreciate that Pope Francis believes in stewardship of the planet and taking care of the world around us and not treating it as disposable. Just because I agree with him on ONE thing does not make me contractually obligated to agree with him on EVERYTHING. That makes me a thinking person, not someone who follows someone with blind faith.
Honestly, not sure why everyone thinks you have to believe every single thing one person says. Strange.
Now that you inclusive and tolerant and accepting and peace loving liberals are also “climate blaming pope worshipers” , will you now all become anti gay and pro life as well?
AL GORE is my shepherd; I shall not think.
He maketh me lie down in his snow laden pastures:
He leadeth me beside his still-freezing waters.
(Spoken; Adagio); He selleth my soul for CO2.
He leadeth me in his path of his self-righteousness for his own sake.
And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of reason,
I shall fear all logic for thou art with me (Spoken; Adagio); and thinking for me.
Thy Gore family oil fortune and thy 10,000 square ft. Gore mansion, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a movie in the presence of contradictory evidence.
Thou anointest mine head with nonsense, (Spoken; Adagio) ; my mindless conformity runneth over.
Surely blind faith and hysteria shall follow me all the days of the rest of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of AL GORE (Spoken; Adagio) ; forever.
Anyone care to comment on this: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/07/27/3684564/james-hansen-climate-danger-hyper-anthropocene/