Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Laudato Sii, presents American conservatives with a serious dilemma. For several decades, they have been relying on the Catholic Church to support their political position on issues such as birth control, abortion, homosexuality and women’s rights. Now, the leader of the Church, in the most definitive type of statement that a pope can issue, has disagreed with – and in fact denounced – their intensely-held belief that the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change is a hoax. Apparently, the deniers are not going to reconsider their position. Instead, they have decided to denounce the Pope. James Inhofe, Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, declared: “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.” Rick Santorum, former Senator and current candidate for President, adds: “I think we [Catholics] are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” And Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida and now another candidate, weighed in by saying that religion “ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”
But Pope Francis is “staying with his job,” “focusing on what he’s good at,” and striving to make “us better as people.” The Encyclical is not a scientific document, only a document that relies on science. Its importance is that it is a moral statement, a basic declaration of humanity’s responsibilities to future generations and to the planet itself. In startling contrast with the Catholic Church’s views on abortion, birth control and women’s rights, Pope Francis is endorsing the new morality that is becoming dominant in the Western World. When the Pope chose to name himself after Christianity’s most beloved saint, it was widely noted as a sign of his concern for the poor, one of St. Francis’ deep and ground-breaking commitments. But St. Francis is equally well-known for an even more innovative and influential view. It was he who taught us to adopt a reverential attitude toward nature that has become an essential element of that new morality. Previously, the natural world had been regarded as a source of both physical and moral danger. People thought that the night, the ground and the sky were all inhabited by demons (the residue of this view being the pop fiction idea that you can protect yourself against evil creatures by waving a cross at them). St. Francis’ great insight was that nature was the beneficent reflection of a beneficent God, that since God created the natural world as well as human beings, everything in nature is our brother and sister. He preached a sermon to the birds and stopped the predations of a man-eating wolf by negotiating with it. The most famous prayer he wrote, which is quoted in the Encyclical, begins by praising “Brother Sun and Sister Moon.”
To be sure, much of the Pope’s Encyclical on climate change reflects his – and his namesake’s – concern for the poor. The deleterious effects of climate change will fall most heavily on them, he observes, both because of the places where they live and because they are so vulnerable to disruptions of any kind. But behind this is an even more basic point. This planet is our home, the one that God has given to us according to the Pope. It is our basic responsibility to protect it, to preserve it for future generations and also as something so basic that it defines us and determines the very essence of our being. “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” the Encyclical declares. You need to be highly skilled at ignoring obvious facts to treat this as a purely scientific or political message, rather than a moral one. But since climate change deniers have already reached new heights in the development of that skill, they are apparently prepared to become papal morality deniers as well.
If you want science, however, here is some further scientific evidence to support the Pope’s moral message: this planet is the only home that we will ever have. We now know that there are lots of other planets in our galaxy, perhaps as many as 100 billion. It’s fun to entertain ourselves with stories about exploring such planets, colonizing them or fighting wars with their inhabitants. But we will never reach any of them, and we will never be able to colonize them with adventurous or excess people. The scientific fact, confirmed repeatedly for more than a century, is that we cannot travel faster than the speed of light. And even if we could develop the technology to move at close to that speed (which would require almost inconceivable amounts of energy) it would take millennia to reach enough of those other planets to find one that can support life. In fact, we will never even be able to have a real conversation with beings from a different planet. Any planet with intelligent life is almost certainly more than fifty light years distant, which means that if we sent a message to it, traveling at the speed of light, everyone who was alive when the message was sent would be dead by the time the answer came back. That’s not a conversation. Similarly, and despite elaborately imagined science fiction stories like Kim Stanley Robinson’s, we are not going to find a new home on Mars. It is colder than Antarctica and about 5,000 times as far from Washington, D.C., and it has no air and little water. At most it will be occupied by small groups of intrepid scientists, the way Antarctica is today.
Scientists have already made clear to the deniers that they are betraying their responsibility to their country. The United States, although it is located outside the tropics, will not be exempt from the deleterious effects of climate change. Our rivers will run dry, our crops will wither, our coastal cities will be flooded, and some of us will die and most of us will swelter in the increasingly debilitating heat. Now the Pope has made clear that the deniers are betraying their moral responsibility to the planet and to humanity in general. It is simply wrong to ignore a severe and well-established danger for a short-term political advantage or some campaign contributions from the energy industry. It is a moral wrong toward the disadvantaged people at the present time, who are already suffering from the effects of climate change. It is a moral wrong to future generations, which will suffer from still more serious effects, and to the planet itself, which is and ever will be our only home. “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” Pope Francis asks in the Encyclical. Instead of telling him not to venture into science, the deniers should listen to his deeply moral message. They will be better as people if they do.