I settled down to read the anticipated Encyclical, and then realised that this was going to be a long read — 177 pages and some 39,000 words. I haven’t read one before, so it was a new experience. It is a scholarly paper, though its 172 references are nearly all theological in character. Pope Francis, or Franciscus, as he signs himself here, is a chatty fellow, and the text is easy to read. I scanned rather than read most of the theological bits after the first one or two. There’s not much he doesn’t cover, but of course I was most interested in what he had to say about ‘climate change’, and its economic, political and social ramifications. There’s much more than that, and I found some of the other stuff rather more novel, if only because the words and phrases of the orthodox ‘climate change’ people have now become wearily familiar to me.
He starts with a good point: he is by no means the first Pope to have worried about where the world is heading with respect to the natural environment. But he may be the first to speak to, in this conversational way, every person living on this planet (paragraph 3 of the Encyclical, hereafter just the numeral). He talks about the present ecological crisis (15), but doesn’t explain what the crisis actually is (technically, or medically, a crisis is the junction at which the patient will either get better or die), and he sees it connected with what he sees as a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called “rapidification”.(18) This in turn is connected with Pollution, waste and the throwaway culture (the subtitle of Chapter 1). The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.(21)
Then comes a section of global warming rhetoric, and one only needs a bit of it:
23 … A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.
24 … Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide.
My old supervisor once told me that writers who used ‘very’ as a modifier were searching for reassurance in themselves, and when the Pope talks about a very solid scientific consensus I feel that he really wants readers to believe that it is so, given that a ‘consensus’ is almost by definition ‘solid’, let alone ‘very solid’.
There are five sentences in the two quoted passages immediately above. The first is arguably wrong, both in the existence of the supposed consensus, and in the notion of ‘disturbing’ warming. Pope Francis need not be disturbed. The second is weasel-worded, both because there has been a constant rise in sea levels for centuries, not just in recent decades, and because of the use of ‘it would appear’ to qualify the incidence of extreme weather events, which have not, on the evidence, increased. The third sentence is empty of real meaning. The fourth is empty of evidence and argument, while the fifth conveys danger though all that is being said is that certain things ‘can’ happen.
There is a lot more like this, and it doesn’t actually encourage the sort of discussion that the Pope says he is seeking. He is so sure of things, and that’s not the right way to go about generating discussion, as you can see from a passage in paragraph 33: Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Now I wrote a piece on species extinction a couple of years ago, and on the evidence three mammals and six birds are known to have become extinct in the last 500 years. What are these ‘thousands’, and where were they before they became extinct? Where are the skeletons? This is the sort of WWF hyperbole which greatly weakens his message.
And then comes a moment of clear vision:
58. In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively.
Now where has all this happened? Why in continental Europe and in countries like Australia, the USA, Canada and New Zealand. How have they been able to do this? Well, they’re wealthy, their people are well-educated, they have a good understanding of their local environments, they are concerned to improve their surroundings, they can afford to do so and they have systems in place that direct resources to such problems.
I would argue that countries can only really afford to to do those things when they have achieved some general wealth, and when most of their people have their primary needs satisfied. If that is the case, then making poor countries richer should be on top of the priority list, rather than dealing with a supposed ‘climate change’. And what do most poor countries need to make all that happen? Why, abundant, reliable and cheap energy, to provide heating, lighting, and the power to make schools, hospitals and the rest viable and effective. I know, I’ve said all this before, and it is such obvious stuff.
And right at the end, the Pope has a bob or two each way:
165. 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 the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.
We need to do this ‘without delay’, but plainly we can’t, so let’s choose the lesser of two evils. Mine would be to use coal, oil and gas to improve the energy resources of poor countries, but an alternative could be that poor countries just have to lump it until the Great Renewables Revolution comes to pass. The Pope wisely leaves that to us all to sort out.
As I said in the beginning, there’s a lot more to this Encyclical than ‘climate change’, and I think some of it will stay relevant for quite a while. But the AGW stuff is pretty empty. It would have been much better, at least for me, if the Pope had forgotten about his theological references and provided 172 that support his assertions about climate. By and large, the Encyclical has been panned in the sceptical blogosphere. But RealClimate likes it, as do the Greens and the Club of Rome. No surprises there.
Footnote: I have written before about a pervading anxiety about some of the Bureau of Meteorology’s ‘adjustments’ to temperature in the past. The Government set up a technical Forum to consider what is being done and to make recommendations. Jennifer Marohasy was largely responsible for all this action, and you can read about what has happened on her blog, here.