Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Francis climate change freak-out

The Climate Mobilization T-shirt
The Climate Mobilization T-shirt

The Climate Mobilization T-shirt

Word that Pope Francis will be issuing an encyclical on climate change in the coming months has occasioned unprecedented agita from conservative Catholic writers. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters discusses a clutch of articles that amount, he judges, to a preemptive strike against a document that does not yet exist.

To quote perhaps the most egregious example, in a climate change-denying screed over at First Things, Maureen Mullarkey dismisses the pope as “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.” The Princeton jurisprude Robert George has also weighed in and so has the director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, Keyshore Jayabalan.

Not that the freak-out is restricted to certifiable Catholics. There’s also been radio host Dennis Prager and, from Breitbart’s London bureau, James Delingpole. All of this is of a piece with the anti-climate change agit-prop of the likes of George WillCharles Krauthammer, and Cal Thomas, to say nothing of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

But the “prebuttal” to the forthcoming encyclical is worth pondering, not least because its anxiety level far exceeds the reaction to Francis’ repeated critiques of capitalism. How come?

In part, it’s because the Catholic capitalist chorus has plenty of experience picking apart the manifestations of anti-capitalism that have long been part of the Church’s social doctrine. Besides enumerating the manifold accomplishments of The Market, they know how to make the most of any opening provided by papal economic pronunciamentos.

Take, for example, Pope Francis’ latest critique, published over the weekend by the Italian newspaper La Stampa. It will not take long for friends of the rich to single out His Holiness’ condemnation of “pauperism” — the religious valorization of poverty — or to justify the status quo by pointing out that he does not contend that there is no place in heaven for the one percent: “The Gospel’s message is for everyone, the Gospel does not condemn the wealthy, but the idolatry of wealth, the idolatry that makes people indifferent to the call of the poor.” Whew!

More importantly, generalized criticism of capitalism is nothing much to fear. Who objects to the occasional reminder that there are poor who need our attention, even if it does strengthen the resolve of those who misguidedly support a hike in the minimum wage or oppose a reduction in unemployment benefits?

Climate change is something else entirely. Combatting it represents a clear and present danger to business as usual.

Environmental harm is the foremost example of a negative externality that private enterprise cannot address on its own. A given factory will not invest in air pollution controls and put itself at a competitive disadvantage to other factories unless the government steps in and requires all to do so in the name of the common good. The threat of climate change is the greatest negative externality of all, and there is growing recognition that the only way to avert global disaster is through massive governmental intervention to bring about a world-wide shift away from carbon-based energy sources.

Take a look at The Climate Mobilization, an effort to create a grass-roots movement to make this happen through a national mobilization on the scale of what the federal government undertook in order to wage World War II. (Disclosure: my son Ezra is one of the principal organizers of the effort.) If this is what’s really required to prevent carbon from destroying civilization, some powers-that-be have more than sufficient reason to minimize the impact of the pope’s encyclical.

Think about the lengths to which the tobacco industry went to suppress information about the dangers of smoking. Then consider that the carbon industry is orders of magnitude larger and more powerful than the tobacco industry. The conservative commentariat knows which side of their bread is buttered, and there’s plenty of butter on it.

Today, Francis concluded his “State of the World” speech to the Vatican’s ambassadorial corps by expressing the hope that this year will see progress “in the drafting of a new Climate Change Agreement.” Let’s just say that that hope is not universally shared.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • There is no ‘freak-out’. There are a number of people irked, bored, and impatient that Francis has neglected his teaching office in favor of babble on topical questions, and babble typical of a man who curries favor with the media.

  • Interesting article and don’t disown your son, 🙂 He believes he is doing the right thing and maybe he is. Nobody can deny the climate changes. My question is hypothetically if we could lower CO2 by 200 points overnight would the climate get cooler in say a year or two. It appears to me scientists can’t assure us they have a solution which will work. How do you analyze the risk benefit of this multi-trillion dollar experiment some would like us to conduct. Either way the ones most effected in terms of taxes or other losses will be the worlds middle class. Do something or do nothing and either way it appears to be a lose lose situation. The pope being an influential person should remain neutral on this issue at least until the state of this scientific art is more certain.

  • Do you call asserting concern over our greatest threat to our well being “babble”? Deniers are morally out to lunch in that they do not take reasonable precautions to prevent wide spread misery. Instead they pretend that arm chair scientists have the same credibility as every scientific organization in the world.

  • To Jan, So do you know for sure these reasonable precautions will work. Even your statement of “greatest threat to our well being” is exaggerated speculation. I am sorry but some of these dire claims remind me of the old time hell fire and brimstone evangelists. I once demonstrated to a friend in college how salvation must come from the heart and not a psychological response to an inflamed emotional speech. Even assuming, which is a large assumption, there is hard science supporting causation not just correlation; there is no hard science to support the proposed solution will work. Therefore the Pope should not be encouraging this approach.

  • Until we stop focusing on unfixable theoretical climate changes, we will distract ourselves away from combatting fixable real problems (overfishing, garbage gyres, soil loss, deforestation, etc. ) curmudgeonreport dot com/2014/07/16/climate-change-six-degrees-of-denial/

  • A doctor performing a life saving operation doesn’t know for sure “it will work”, but we must turn to the experts, not kibbutzers, not knee-jerk cynics, not armchair doctors, for their best advice.

    In climate science and physics the experts urge us to reduce emissions to reduce future impacts.

    Our most trusted messengers, not the fossil fueled Stink Tanks say pretty much the same thing. Climate change is real, human caused and profoundly threatening: NOAA, NASA, every science organization in the world,

    97% of our climate scientists, dozens of Nobel Laureates, the Dept. of Defense, the World Bank, every major university science department, is on board with the IPCC.

    If only half (not even 97%) of traffic experts told you, ‘better not buy that children’s car seat”, even if it is the only one in the store closest to you, would you buy it?”

    Doing nothing is the most scary “action” we can take.

  • I disagree with many of the comments here. First, taking action isn’t meant to automatically replace the damage that has already been done. It is meant to keep things from getting far worse. Second, there are other issues involved than strictly global warming. Reducing our fossil fuel consumption will have across the board health benefits and will reduce smog in many large cities. I have fewer sinus and breathing problems since moving from Nashville, TN (a high smog, traffic pollution area) to Winston-Salem, NC. Salt Lake City, Utah has a huge air pollution problem. Taking action on climate change also less air pollution, thus better health. So Pope Francis is taking action out of love and respect for God’s creation and love for neighbor thus making this a Christian issue.

  • .These climate change morons won’t be happy until they put us in an ice age here is my theory, based on the same argument they use to show they are doing more harm than good.
    The Black Death was from 1340 to 1350 there were millions killed over one fourth of the population maybe more we don’t know we only talk about Europe but it came from Asia and Africa we don’t talk about their death in our history books.
    So all these people who used oils and wood to heat and cook with, all of a sudden just stopped due to the decrease in population there by creating a sudden drop in the pollution and co2 levels of the planet this was the cause of the little ice age, from late 1300’s to 1870.
    The earth adjust to small changes over short periods of time, However when you have a sudden change of all the thing that effect climate like the black death, you have less people farming, less people heating, cooking , breathing ,and farting.
    Less livestock all the things the earth was compensating for overtime as the population grew, then they were just gone.
    This had a tremendous effect on the planet. And now thanks to the climate freaks who don’t believe the great mother earth can take care of her children want to create a new kind of black death by just suddenly cutting out the equivalent of one fourth of the population and like the black death they will send us into another ice age.

  • Cken, “the experiment” is already underway. Humans evolved under a mostly neutral Earth Energy Budget. We invented writing, Jesus was born, Rome fell, the Enlightment spread, the US colonies declared independence…. all with a neutral Earth Energy Budget.

    No more. Now we have a positive energy budget mostly due to greenhouse gas buildup. What will that positive energy budget do? The experiment is ALREADY underway.

    Well over half the planet’s calories comes either from the ocean or grows on coastal soils. We know we’re acidifiying the ocean, which will collapse the marine food web. We know the sea levels are rising, which is exposing the rich agricultural deltas to more and more salt buildup. We know there are more displaced refugees due to extreme weather events than all conflict combined.

    So (A) the greenhouse chemicals are already in the test tube we call the atmosphere, (B) we can measure their effect on Earth’s Energy Budget, and (C) we already have evidence to project collapse of a large portion of our food supply, and (D) we’re already straining goverments and stoking regional conflicts with millions of extreme weather refugees.

    You’re concerned with the cost of decarbonising the economy. Well fine…. but you should be comparing that cost to the cost of widespread hits to global food supply, direct losses to extreme weather, and the government-busting pressures that will only escalate as more and more people are displaced.

    Yes, it will cost to decarbonise the economy.

    But it will cost so much more to NOT do it that decarbonisation would be cheap at 10x the price.

  • Bob, you’re reading only one side’s blog and repeating it without thinking.

    Investing resources to combat overfishing while still burning fossil fuels is exactly like painting your house while ignoring the fire in the kitchen. If the oceans keep acidifying, we kiss even the best-managed fisheries goodbye.

    Try reading the blogs from BOTH sides and reading enough at sciencedaily and skepticalscience to evaluate the claims of both sides.

  • I keep seeing your ABC and D statements but when I try to research it to find conclusive evidence; what I find is mostly your type of inflamed rhetoric repeated ad nauseam Even in IPCC reports and the occasional research reports their rhetorical conclusions don’t exactly fit the research data. They make pretty graphs and have manipulated model data but nothing you can sink your teeth into. Their rhetoric may be right but I am still skeptical. I am even more skeptical the proposed fix will work. They are assuming their correlation is causation and that by reversing the correlation it will cure the alleged problem.

  • Tennessee’s problem isn’t from pollution it is from pollen. So not exactly a good supporting example. Besides our air (and water) pollution in this country is 100 better than it was 40 years ago. CO2 is not a pollutant and doesn’t cause human health hazards.

  • I am very skeptical of experts because they too are money motivated. I can also say from personal experience if you do exactly what doctors tell you to do without question you will potentially shorten your life. This is especially true of primary care physicians. They make their living by pushing drugs to treat symptoms. It would behoove you to try to find the root cause of the symptom and change that. Climatologists just like doctors are interested in treating symptoms rather than causes. So if we do this carbon tax, carbon bank thing there is what a 10% chance it will work 1%,20% or what.
    Let me give you a personal example. I am faced with a medical decision of undergoing a certain procedure; 25% of those who do this die in the first two months, 50% within 2 years, and 25% go on to live a normal life. Without the procedure I may live another 5 years give or take. The medical experts are pushing hard for me to do the procedure, obviously because they make a whole lot of money, almost a million dollars, from it. What would you do follow the experts?
    Unfortunately the climatologists can give no percentages for success because they haven’t a clue. So should we just follow them blindly in their world wide multi-trillion dollar experiment.

  • Do you call asserting concern over our greatest threat to our well being “babble”? –

    If it tickles your fancy to regard Lonnie Thompson’s core samples rotting away unexamined and uncatalogued in some college warehouse and the doctored data of the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit as indicative of ‘the greatest threat to our well being’, by all means amuse yourself (even if you’re a bore to your friends and relations). You have no teaching office, so the opportunity cost is not steep. Not so for Francis.

  • I can’t believe that people are still falling for the Climate Change hoax after all of they’ve been exposed for falsifying data. Astounding.

  • The cause has been identified: CO2 emissions. The cure is obvious: eliminate billions of tons of emissions.

    The financial communit (WES) has put AGW at the top of economic threats and urge elimination of emissions

    95% consensus of expert economists: cut carbon pollution

    The Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University (NYU) School of Law recently published a report summarizing a survey of economists with climate expertise.

  • What has been identified is a correlation which may or may not be causation. Even though it would seem logical that altering the correlation would effect the climate, logic isn’t proof especially when we are dealing with such a complex system with so many variables

  • I am a little older than you and back in the day we weren’t forced to buy car seats for our kids. So I didn’t. Guess what my kids are all alive and healthy.
    I feel sorry for people today living their life in fear that that one in a million chance something bad might happen. I guess based on that mentality everybody should have a conceal carry permit for that one in a million chance you might be mugged or shot at.

  • You do know big money is pushing global warming. They will get richer and we will get poorer. Let’s assume the warmie extremists are right and their apocalyptic future came to pass; would losing 1/3 or more of the worlds population be a bad thing for the planet. Allegedly the worlds population has been pretty much decimated a couple of times in the past and we are still here. Climate changes, the worlds topography changes, there are earthquakes and volcanoes erupt, and every few years a hurricane does a little serious damage. Humanity always has adapted and pressed on.
    It is extremely unlikely we will be able to control the climate so why waste trillions trying. Let’s use the money to facilitate adaption when it is needed rather than buying into some risky insurance policy to protect us against an unknown future.

  • So in other words whatever an expert tells you you believe without question. That is just sad. Even if I decide to go along with a doctors advise they have at least given me odds for their chance of success. The warmies can give no odds on the chances of success of the climate not warming as fast if we lower CO2. They can say it is logical based on our correlation, but they don’t know.
    Doctors are a poor example to use with me. Doctors rarely cure anything, only about 15% of the time, the rest of the time they give you drugs to treat symptoms and leave the “cure” up to mother nature, your body, or god as you prefer.
    I have an incurable terminal illness and it took me two months of research before I decided to agree to their proposed treatment.
    My oncologists still have serious “discussions” about my chemo frequency and dosage levels.
    Now if I had liver cancer and the doctor said you have 6 months to live without chemo and maybe a year or so if you do Chemo; then no chemo for…