Francis Is Out of His Element: The Pope Should Focus on Fighting Poverty, Not Climate Change

Published April 29, 2015

Eight years ago, I was deeply honored to be invited to participate in the first papal conference on climate change, the Pontifical Council on Climate Change and Development. To my great and lasting regret, I was unable to participate.

Now a new Pope is leading a new climate conference, and I’d like to humbly offer my thoughts about some factors he should consider as he leads the discussion.

Science is critical to understanding why and how our climate changes — an issue, contrary to popular belief, that’s still a matter of open debate. However, science provides no insight into how individuals or governments ought to respond to any particular threats or benefits possibly arising from climate change. These are normative matters.

As a result, the ideas of religious leaders and moral philosophers are valuable in considering how we should respond to what science tells us about climate change, or at least what normative matters we ought to consider.

Pope Francis has decided to make battling climate change an important papal cause. On the surface, this seems an appropriate endeavor for the Church. As the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world, he is charged not just with saving souls but also with alleviating the suffering of the world’s least fortunate and with leading the Catholic Church to make the world a better place.

Moral imperatives and public policies should be grounded in the best-available science. Unfortunately, based on what I’ve heard Pope Francis say about climate change, he has been badly misinformed and led astray.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on which the Pope appears to rely in great part, is just what its name implies, a governmental panel with leaders chosen by, the course of research directed by, and what gets reported to the media determined and edited by (or in conjunction with) politicians, not scientists.

From the outset, the deck was stacked, since the politicians who created the IPCC did not charge it with determining what causes climate change, but instead limiting it to studying possible human causes of climate change. Unsurprisingly, the direction of the enterprise dictated the outcome. The IPCC dutifully reported human greenhouse gas emissions, not nature, were causing global warming.

The IPCC conclusions rely on climate models, but as Max Borders pointed out in a recent essay, “Models are not evidence.” Models present simulations of complex processes, and when model projections diverge from the evidence, they, not the evidence, should be discarded. The IPCC’s models offer scary projections of melting polar ice caps, species going extinct, more frequent and intense hurricanes and droughts, diminishing winters, crop failures, and continuously rising temperatures, yet the actual data show none of these predictions has come true. Indeed, often, just the opposite is occurring. Crops yields are setting records, as is the Antarctic sea ice extent. Winter temperatures and snowfall show no sign of abating, and global temperatures have stalled for 18 years despite rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Those pushing for bans on fossil fuel use think too many humans are the environmental problem. Many of them worship the creation, not the Creator. The same people pushing the pope to join the fight against climate change support forcible population control programs such as those operating in China. That is not a Christian position.

The climate policies the IPCC pushes are absolutely the worst possible policies for alleviating poverty around the world. Laws that end up denying people access to relatively inexpensive, abundant, and reliable fossil fuels are a death sentence for millions around the world. Caring for the poor, truly promoting their needs, requires more, not less, energy use.

In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein makes one of the most cogent statements concerning what the Pope needs to know about the relation between climate and people:

Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to fossil fuels.… The popular climate discussion has the issue backward. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.
This is the message I would like to see Pope deliver at his climate summit.