Thursday, June 18, 2015

The climate encyclical: should the pope be hanged?

Image above: an internet site with wild accusations against Pope Francis. That's, of course, just the work of an isolated crackpot, but, a hundred years ago, Pope Benedict XV was widely accused of "defeatism" and threatened with hanging when he requested to stop the "useless slaughter" of the first world war. Could something similar occur because of Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change?    

The Pope's encyclical on climate is out. I went through it, I think I agree with just about everything in it. From a scientific viewpoint, it seems to me flawless (at least after a first read). In terms of its ethical and human approach, it is even better. I don't see myself as a very religious person, but I think we badly need ways to overcome that peculiarly evil view of the world that sees each one of us as a mere economic agent, interested only in maximizing profits and accumulating capital. That can't be the way to run things on this planet and if we need a religion to tell us that we should do better than that, then welcome religion!!

This said, now what? It was Stalin who mocked the pope by asking how many division he could muster on the battlefield, but - apart from armored divisions - if I were a denier, I would feel dismayed. The beauty of the pope's intervention is that it demolishes right away one of the main stumbling blocks that prevented most people from understanding the gravity and the seriousness of the situation. So far, the forces of denial could paint the whole story of climate change as a silly idea concocted by an isolated group of crackpot scientists. But, now, not anymore. You may agree or not with the pope, but you can't ignore that he represents more than a billion Christians. Not an isolated group of crackpots, for sure. Clearly, the pope's encyclical has forever changed the terms of the debate.

On the other hand, if I were a climate science denier, I would also start thinking about what I could do to oppose the pope and his ideas. And, for this purpose, there are ways. We have, today, a giant mud-slinging machine in place that's called "public relations" (called propaganda in old times). This PR machine is truly an evil force that can destroy anything it decides to destroy; even the pope.

It is not farfetched. Something similar already happened about one century ago, in August 1917, during the first world war. The pope of the time, Benedict XV, appealed to "the heads of warring peoples" to end the "useless slaughter." He was not heard and, at least in Italy, the reaction of some exponents of the war party was that the pope should have been hanged.

So, it is not difficult to imagine ways to use the mud-slinging machine to paint the pope as feeble-minded, misguided, or perhaps much worse than that. Will we see again people asking for "hanging the pope", as it happened in 1917? (*) We can only say that the present situation is even more dramatic than it was at the time of the first world war. There is still time to avoid a climate disaster, but we still face a hard fight. What is sure, anyway, is that the pope's intervention is a big push in the right direction and a great hope for all humankind.

(*) Something like that seems to be already ongoing here.


  1. It is not really flawless - see #50.

    On the other hand, it calls out the fallacy of infinite growth, which is better than what I expected.

    1. Yes. "demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. Correctly, it is a bit hard to swallow. But the whole paragraph is reasonably balanced and it never says that demographic is a goal that should be pursued.

    2. Exactly. It is pretty mild, in comparison to the pro-growth-ad-infinitum fury that greeted "Limits to Growth", "The Population Bomb" and, further back in time, Malthus' "Essay on Population".

      I repeat, the RC Church has nailed its flag to the mast so adamantly on all issues concerning matters of human sex (of which procreation is only one) that addressing population growth as a problem would be a vicious kick to the groin of the plentiful dinosaurs in the RC Church. Not productive.

    3. Reasonably balanced? It's a grotesque failure! First he denies there's another elephant bull in the room. Second he accuses those who see it as being greedy.

      This argument is right out of the standard climate denialist catechism! (Chapter "In it for the gold")

    4. David CollinsJune 18, 2015 at 2:20 PM
      Not productive.

      Well, let's say I want to break the world's weightlifting record for my category. The only way I would be able to do that is if I can generate the necessary force to lift the barbell above my head. But I can't do that and no amount of wishful thinking and rationalizing will change the fact that I do need meet all necessary conditions to achieve what I want. And I will be crushed under the weight of the barbell.

      Similarly, the world's sustainability crisis can only be solved by doing what is necessary and sufficient. That includes tackling population head on. Without that we will be crushed by the weight of the problem.

    5. Mr Marinov: The sustainability crisis cannot be solved without adequately addressing the Population Bomb. That is a necessary condition. It is not a sufficient condition. "Laudato Si" addresses a host of other issues very well. The population issue is addressed very poorly (Paragraph 50 — you gotta read it to grasp how weak and fuzzy it is). Overwhelmingly, the rest of the Encyclical is excellent: well thought out, passionate, well written.

      Separately, I find the Spanish version better, overall, than the English. One of several indications that the Pope was heavily involved in composing it, Spanish being the native language of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Who has also said that women need not “breed like rabbits”.

      For a whole slew of reasons, “Laudato Si” falls short of perfection. Big wow.

  2. I too have read the whole thing and although I did not think it was perfect (either scientifically or morally)(it avoids saying the church will do its bit in the one area where it could ..demographics) it was in a general sense good and going in the right directions. I think it poses as much of a problem (if not more) for the "BAU-ists" than it does for the deniers. It puts them in a quandary (as some contradictory articles in yesterday's FT already demonstrate) . Of course they could mobilize their ever faithful "diverse but consistent" mainstream media against the Pope much as they have done against Putin. But mainstream consumeristic, materialistic, neoliberal and BAUist ideology sits upon a deeper earlier bedrock of religious ideologies of all sorts which continue to be needed by the BAUists. So taking down the Pope a notch or two apart from the immediate political cost it would impose is not really in their interests. What would replace the bedrock of the main religions? The BAUISTS are probably at least as scared of the neoliberal ideology paradigm reigning supreme and unchecked as their opponents are. And what might EL HOMBRE NUEVO" look like? Heaven forbid if he looked anything like El Che. So at least as far as Argentians are concerned better stick with HEAVEN. Maybe that bothersome Encyclical will just go away and be forgotten in due course? But what about all the little and big reminders coming from GAIA in the future repeating ad nauseum that it is mostly RIGHT? The upcoming future should not disappoint those who think that we live in interesting times. And in the even shorter term I just heard that the run on Greek banks is intensifying and that Tsipras is in Moscow for talks. (and not in Rome)

    1. Thanks for thought about bedrock religions.
      I note that down among the deniers (World ranking order), Republican voters in USA who are Catholic are more inclined to be concerned about CC and accept reality. This encyclical we hope can only help that.

      What it does for BAU, (even many 'worried conservatives' still keep pedal to the floor), is going to be pretty diverse, I guess Anglophone PR could marginalise Pope for the majority of us high-end emitters. But his 1.1 billion fellow church members are mostly lower incomes, who probably 'get it' better than us folk. The poor might yet inherit the earth. (See this one by George Monbiot a year ago

      The best I can do is pass on this list of quotes (h/t Mark Rice comment on ADR) - I like the use of straight forward word like 'lie'.

      Quotes from the Pope's encyclical:

      "We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social," Francis writes, "but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."

      "The idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology ... is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry at every limit."

      “An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,”

      "The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God."

      " A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment."

      “It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society."

  3. In fact Tsipras just spoke in St Petersburgh right after Putin and then the usual Bloomberg gang aumented by ex secretarly of defense and Bilderberg regular Cohen "helped us" to correctly interpret their speeches. We will be further "helped" by Charlie Rose in just a few more minutes. Will stay tuned...

  4. There are three fronts in this dispute. The first is “climate science” along with its associated reports, models and analyses. The vast majority of people could care less about these experts. If anything they arouse a cynical distrust about science in general (“Remind me, are eggs good or bad for your health? Scientists are always changing their minds.”)

    The second front is personal experience. To this point most people have good reason to deny that anything is going on; life continues much as normal. Para. 59: “. . . As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time . . .”

    But this attitude may be changing. I live in a conservative U.S. state but most people I talk to accept that “something is happening” to the climate — mainly because of the on-going drought in California. Something like 30 million people are directly affected and they have friends and relations all over the country. It’s becoming up front and personal.

    This encyclical opens up a third front: ethics, morality and concern for the poor. I think it will have a slow but effective impact on the way that people think.

    This does not mean that I think that “deniers” are foolish. Indeed I have less respect for “Prius drivers” who think that one little thing is all they need do. Para. 59: “. . . At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness”. I suspect that many “deniers” are shrewd — they recognize that accepting and acting on climate change will lead to a radical reduction in their standard of living and they don’t want go there. And I don’t blame them.

    Which brings us to Chapter Five. Para. 163: “. . . , now we shall try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us”. It all boils down to action. If the church and its members take drastic action to address these issues then the encyclical will have been an invaluable leadership document. If they don’t it will be just another report gathering dust on the shelf.

  5. We are really screwed. If the Pope is worried about CC, the s**t is flooding our knees.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)