The Pope's Climate Message
Pope’s Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States later this month will bring a renewed focus on combating climate change, and while his call for intergenerational and other forms of equity resonant widely; there must be a robust role for both values and economics for climate change action to succeed.
No nation will be willing to break its economy to slow climate change, no matter how compelling the science. So creating market conditions that favor advanced technologies in thoughtful cost-effective ways will be critical to achieving big reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases.
The Pope stands on solid ground when he talks about how to do this: chop the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal; increase the use of non-carbon energy like wind and solar; reduce the waste of energy; and protect vital biospheres like the Amazon Basin.* How best to get results and how fast will require the best thinking of moral leaders like the Pope, technology experts, and the economists who have carefully studied the climate issue.
The Pope’s May encyclical on climate took a shot at cap-and-trade mechanisms to reduce emissions, even though these have produced results in Europe and at the regional level in the United States. Cap-and-trade is seen in the poorer nations as a way for the wealthy to buy the right to pollute and has other problems that lead many students of climate change to prefer carbon taxes. Yet if the Pope removes cap-and-trade as an option, the perfect may become the enemy of the feasible good.
Despite this limitation, the Pope’s message will be much needed in the United States, where climate action has been slow in coming, ethical issues have been largely ignored, and the ongoing debate remains oblivious to many global perspectives.
Annual national emissions, for instance, are highlighted here, suggesting that China is the real problem. Pope Francis and others around the world would stress per capita emissions or historic accumulations, which creates a very different picture.
Americans also prefer to point to emissions per unit of the economy as a metric of success, which suggests to the rest of the world that the wealthy are allowed to pollute more. U.S. climate strategies use 2005 (just before U.S. emissions peaked) as a baseline, rather than 1990 as agreed to by the international community.
The Pope’s universal values aimed to people of all faiths can help elevate the American dialogue. It reminds us that our parents taught us that we don’t dump our trash in our neighbors’ backyard, even if the trash is a global pollutant and the neighbor is the other side of the globe. We try to leave the world a better place for later generations.
The United States is the best postured for an international climate summit than it has been since the talks in Rio in 1991.
Its position for upcoming the Paris Climate Summit has been set and constitutes the best effort so far to make commitments that are serious and provide leverage with other nations.* Some combative states and Republican candidates for president are threatening to overturn the package put together by President Obama without offering any alternatives. Thus, the long-term American position is far from certain.
As the country moves to implement its Paris commitments and then think through what comes next, the Pope’s ethical message will be a helpful contribution to the deliberations.