The Encyclical’s Challenge Is to Climate-Change Activists, Not Skeptics

People’s Climate March in New York City, September 2014. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Activists eagerly awaited Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, which was supposed to confront climate-change skeptics and build momentum toward a binding global agreement at the international conference in Paris this December. But by emphasizing the needs of the poor, the document achieves the opposite, exposing and widening cracks in the climate-action coalition. “The time has come,” it says, “to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.” To opponents of action, the encyclical restates arguments heard before. To supporters, it poses uncomfortable questions about tradeoffs they prefer to hide from view.

If debates over climate science and the need for action stood as the primary obstacle to a global agreement, a papal encyclical might smooth the path forward. But they are not. Grandiose statements about the importance of the task at hand already seem the primary output of international conferences.

The fundamental challenges are economic and political. Developed nations could mitigate their own emissions at substantial but manageable cost; however, that mitigation would achieve little unless developing nations followed suit. Developing nations, relying on cheap energy to bring basic services like electricity to their deeply impoverished populations, cannot and will not accept the much steeper human cost that their own mitigation would require. So who will pay for the developing nations? “The international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition,” the encyclical observes.

RELATED: The Pope’s Encyclical, at Heart, Is About Us, Not Trees and Snail Darters

Developed nations have made vague gestures of support, committing in 2009 to provide $100 billion per year by 2020. But there is no evidence they will spend sums of this magnitude or deploy it effectively; by comparison, all existing foreign aid from OECD countries totaled $135 billion last year. The Green Climate Fund, established to facilitate transfers, has thus far struggled to raise an initial total of $10 billion.

When the leaders of China and India issued a joint statement last month, meanwhile, they demanded that developed nations accelerate emissions reductions and provide more money and technology to the developing world. They made no commitments of their own.

Into this morass has stepped the pope. The encyclical declares an “urgent need” for policies that will drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. So far so good, for the #ActOnClimate crowd. But it then slices through the Gordian knot of competing international interests by placing the onus for action entirely on wealthy nations.

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The encyclical says that “for poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people.” Developed countries, meanwhile, owe an “ecological debt” to developing ones and “ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries.”

The encyclical declares an “urgent need” for policies that will drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But it then slices through the Gordian knot of competing international interests by placing the onus for action entirely on wealthy nations.

Applying these principles to policy prescriptions, the encyclical warns against “the internationalization of environmental costs,” which, it says, “penalizes those countries most in need of development.” It rejects market solutions generally, quoting from prior Church doctrine that “the environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.” And it singles out “carbon credits” for condemnation because they “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” Instead, it reiterates Pope Benedict XVI’s call for “a true world political authority” and advocates “mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources.”

These statements only compound the difficulties awaiting diplomats in Paris, entrenching the position of the developing world and driving up demands that would not have been met anyway. They are the equivalent of building momentum toward a Mideast peace summit with a declaration that Israel has no right to exist. Yes, it is a solution, but not one likely to improve the tenor of talks.

RELATED: Laudato No: Praise Not Pope Francis’s Crude Economics

For domestic activists and politicians, the challenge is even greater. Popular discussion of climate change conveniently ignores the gap in logic between “the science is real” and “therefore accept our policy prescriptions and the world will come along.” The encyclical places the gap on full display, alongside the unacceptable cost such a logical leap imposes on the developing world. A global price on carbon dioxide emissions is not, it turns out, the obviously right and moral answer.

#related#Supporters of climate action have been pitching win–win solutions that do not exist. Supporters emphasize the need for U.S. “leadership,” but the encyclical reminds us that other countries are looking not for leadership but for a handout. Supporters say American companies can develop renewable technology and “sell it to the world,” but the encyclical suggests that we give it away and send a check to cover installation.

The encyclical should force climate-action supporters to engage with the tradeoff at the heart of their agenda. In demanding emissions reductions, do they propose to grievously harm the poorest of the poor in the developing world, or to establish an enormous system of wealth transfers from developed nations to developing ones? The American people might want to understand that before negotiations in Paris begin, though their own preference is likely “none of the above.”

Activists looked forward to bringing their opponents copies of the encyclical and asking, “Do you agree with the pope?” But the better question is for the activists: Do you?

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