Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, is one of the most profound and stirring documents on poverty and climate change.
The underlying theme of the letter is that everything is connected, to use the Pope’s word, “integral.” It is not easy reading. It is also pessimistic about man and his future. But, it is unforgettable; the Pope’s complex mind is in full display; its imagery is a vivid as the poetry of Thomas Merton.
But is it accurate? Should we believe it? Can it be our guide on the fraught questions of global warming and climate change?
The science journal, Nature, asked a diverse group of climate scientists to review it for its consistency with their findings.
Here is what some of them said.
On the science of climate change, the Pope said: “A very solid consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle) yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases released mainly as a result of human activity.”
Hans Joachin Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany said: “I can testify that everything in the encyclical is in line with science.”
This is a direct challenge to those who still doubt that since 1850, when the Industrial Revolution began, perturbations in global temperatures were observed. The best evidence of this is the ice cores that were extracted from the ice sheets in South Pole that showed that for 800,000 years until the Industrial Revolution the world’s temperature was stable at 10ºC.
This is the basis of the 2ºC target above pre-industrial levels that was adopted in Cancun and which will be debated again in Paris in December this year. Since the first meeting 25 years ago in Berlin average surface temperature has risen 0.8ºC, leaving very little time to keep it within the 2ºC target.
On the cap-and-trade scheme, Pope Francis said: “The strategy of buying and selling carbon credits can lead to a new form of speculation which would not reduce the emissions of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”
Cap-and-trade was adopted in Kyoto. It allowed some industries to pollute by buying carbon credits from industries that do not pollute. The aim is to put a price on carbon that, it was hoped, would stabilize or even reduce the addition of carbon to the atmosphere, using the price mechanism of the market economy. This was thought to be a carbon tax.
Ottmar Edenhofer, the co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed.
“If we want,” Edenhofer said, “to avoid dangerous climate change, we have to restrict the use of fossil fuels, we have to put a tax on carbon. This would generate revenue, which could be used to improve access to clean water or education, especially for the poor.”
The proposal made by China, one of the three biggest emitters of carbon, along with India and the US, is cap-and-trade. Before the air in Beijing become unbreathable, China was actually making money from carbon credits that it sold in the international carbon market.
India’s proposal is based on carbon intensity, a method that links carbon emission to economic output.
In short, both countries want to stay within the status quo, as much as possible.
On biodiversity and the ocean, the Pope said: “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce, and production. The loss of forests and woodlands, entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems… International and regional conventions do exist, but fragmentation and lack of strict mechanisms of regulation, control and penalization end up undermining these efforts. The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges.”
Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, said: “I find nothing remarkable in the Pope accepting mainstream science—things have moved on from the days of Galileo, but climate change is a moral imperative that requires that we change our value system. On this point I strongly agree with him.”
Forests and seas are carbon sinks. But deforestation and the use of the oceans as garbage dumps and the destruction of corals and schools of fish continue unabated. Tuna, in the millions, use to roam the open seas. Today they are counted in the thousands, and they are still hunted relentlessly. At the same time the oceans become acidic and even toxic.
The root cause is capitalism. Production and consumption without limits are the norm of all countries.
The Pope’s call for sustainable and integral development is still a theory. Economic growth is the object of every country, rich or poor. There seems to be no other way. And for this reason the message of the Pope is received with deep skepticism by many people.
The Pew Research Center in Washington D.C. ran a recent poll of Catholics in America. It found that 71% of American Catholics believe that man is the cause of global warming; 47% think that it can be solved by technology and 48% say that it is a serious problem about which they are clueless. This is roughly half of the Pope’s flock in the United States.
Finally, on fossil fuels and renewable energy, the Pope said: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose between two evils or to find a short-term solution. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreement about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.”
In Lima, Peru, our secretary of finance, Mr. Cesar Purisima, presided over a meeting of ten of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. They are islands, deserts, archipelagos, land-locked countries, states that depend on snow melt for drinking water, and so on. All of them would not able to make transition to a carbon-less future by 2030 without help. India for example estimates that to achieve her goal it needs $2.5 trillion. And with this, it can only reduce carbon intensity by 33-36% and to generate 40% of its energy from clean sources.
Adding all the pledges of 140 countries, the agency that tracks carbon buildup in the atmosphere said that they are not enough; by 2030 we would breach the 2ºC target.
Since the treaty that will be debated in Paris depends on the member states measuring, monitoring, and assessing their individual carbon emissions and voluntarily reporting these to the IPCC, the chances of slippage are very high.
Unless all the countries agree to be assessed by the United Nations, which is not likely, the Paris meeting will have to change the metric to zero emission by 2030. This does not look possible.
The Pope is correct. The whole world will have to change its values, its culture, and its institutions.
No wonder, Laudato Si’ is so bleak.
Rony V. Diaz, an award-winning writer, served as executive editor, editor in chief and then publisher of The Manila Times,, while writing the paper’s weekly science column. He resigned to devote “all his time to storytelling.” He is now working on his fourth novel. The Manila Times Book Division published his trilogy consisting of At War’s End, Elegy for Candida and Quita y Pone, which are available at National Book Store. He also worked as director general of the National Manpower and Youth Council (NMYC), which presaged TESDA and the International Labour Organization (ILO)in Geneva. He also taught at the University of the Philippines.