Op-ed: Pope Francis goes off the rails

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, June 21, 2015 12:09pm
  • Opinion

A quasi-religious movement now has a genuinely religious leader.

The pope’s encyclical on the environment is being hailed for its embrace of science, although it is about as scientific as the Catholic hymnal.

Pope Francis writes that Sister Earth “now cries out because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Really? Is that what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says?

The Catholic Church brings comfort and meaning to the lives of countless millions. That doesn’t mean that climate science, economic policy and cost-benefit analysis are its core competencies. No one has ever said: Yes, but what did Gregory VII do to fight the onset of the Medieval Warm Period?

All that matters to the media, though, is that Pope Francis has taken an apocalyptic climate alarmism and given it the imprimatur of the Vatican. The same people who dismiss the pope on more central moral matters, like the dignity of life, are now attributing to him an authority that might have made Pope Innocent III, who challenged kings, blush.

The document could have benefited from an editor cutting out the bizarre ramblings. The pope writes of “harmful habits of consumption,” including “the increasing use and power of air conditioning.” He argues that “an outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior.”

That’s assuming the outsider lives in a very cool climate, or doesn’t mind sweating. Anyone not so lucky probably thinks the inventor of air conditioning should be canonized.

While the pope pays lip service to technological advances, he doesn’t truly appreciate their wonders. The Industrial Revolution was a great boon to humankind. Consider the unrelieved misery — the disease, the poverty, the illiteracy — before around 1800, when if you weren’t an aristocrat, a general or a bishop, your life was probably nasty, brutish and short.

“The average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 B.C.,” Gregory Clark writes in his book “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.” “Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: 30 to 35 years. Stature, a measure both of the quality of diet and of children’s exposure to disease, was higher in the Stone Age than in 1800.”

But at least when everyone died at a much earlier age, we weren’t engaging in the ravages of the planet that so exercise Francis. This sinful assault on the Earth, by the way, largely consisted in taking otherwise completely useless glop from the ground and using it to power economic and technical advances that enriched average people beyond anyone’s imagining. This is obviously a secular miracle of the highest order.

And the bounty hasn’t ended. Something like a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in places like India and China in recent decades as they have embraced markets and global trade. The pope should be delighted, except he has a blinkered view of capitalism as a zero-sum game benefiting only the privileged.

In this vein, he writes of the “ecological debt” that exists “between the global north and south.” Well, if we are going to speak of debts, the global north gave the global south the modern world. (You’re welcome.) The best thing that can happen to developing counties now is that they can follow our example of economic growth driven in part by cheap energy.

For all that the pope portrays modern development as a long exercise in environmental devastation, it is the advanced countries that have the cleanest water and air, and are best prepared to adapt their way around any far-off environmental challenges.

His encyclical will be portrayed as the best thing the church has done since Pope Leo dissuaded Attila from sacking Rome, but on climate change, it merely bends to the fashions of the hour.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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