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Nick Butler: The Pope’s Message Misses The Point

Nick Butler, Financial Times

The shocking thing about the papal encyclical Laudate Si is not that it was leaked in advance nor even that it embraces the idea that most emissions of greenhouse gases are the result of human activity. The thing that should shock readers is its attack on science and technology — the very tools, indeed the only tools, which offer a solution to climate change.

I am not a student of theology and therefore do not claim to understand the subtleties of the Catholic Church’s teaching on science. But since the Pope has moved outside his own natural territory and into energy policy, some response seems appropriate.

From a distance, Pope Francis seems to embody decency. He is modest, frugal, concerned for the poor and hostile to the creepier side of the church hierarchy in Rome and beyond. That makes him stand out in a world of shallow and cynical “leaders”. He commands millions of followers and his words deserve to be taken seriously whether one is a Catholic or not.

But if you read the encyclical there is a flaw in the argument that undermines the credibility of the whole text. It is perhaps best summed up by paragraph 110 of the document, which deserves to be quoted in full

“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. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

This is one among many examples of a critique of science that runs through the whole document. This must be disspiriting, to put it mildly, to the many Catholics who have been involved in research on climate change over the last 20 years and more. The very problem of climate change was identified by scientific analysis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, is composed of scientists whose conclusion about the causation of climate change and the associated risks if it continues unchecked have brought the issue to public attention across the world. Those scientists did not rely on prayer but on hard work, often extending the limits of what was previously known. Their work is what separates them from the deniers of climate change whose belief is based on faith rather than facts.

Having identified the problem, what are the solutions? There is no single answer. Pope Francis repeatedly calls for a change in behaviour. That is all well and good but for many people, especially the world’s poorest, such a behavioural change can only happen if they are offered a viable alternative to burning coal or other fossil fuels. Every possible alternative I can think of comes back to science — either in the form of existing technology or scientific advances that have yet to be made. That includes electric vehicles which would reduce oil consumption, smart meters which would control and limit energy use, carbon capture and storage, clean coal technology, advanced batteries and other storage technologies, photovoltaics and advanced materials. The list could go on — and indeed fills up hundreds of pages of the latest review of Energy Technology Perspectives from the International Energy Agency.

Scientists are advancing these technologies across the world — in companies and in universities by individuals who believe they are doing something good for the world. The encyclical undermines their efforts.

If these efforts ceased today I do not know what could take their place. The encyclical implies that climate change is a problem of the rich world consuming too much. One can see why the US. Republicans led by Jeb Bush do not like it. But in reality, the challenge of climate change now is not focused on the US or Europe, where energy demand has stopped growing and where the carbon intensity of GDP declines year by year. The problem comes from the growing populations of south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — areas that between them will have some 1.5bn to 2bn more citizens in 20 years’ time than they do today. Every citizen needs energy and, although many will subsist on less than they need, tens of millions will become consumers of commercial supplies of coal and oil which will generate more and more emissions. Unless, that is, science can offer a lower-cost alternative.

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