Bikhu Bodhi: Climate Change is a Moral Issue

The moral tide of our age pushes us in two directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty, struggling each day to survive. The other is to preserve the integrity and sustaining capacity of the planet. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy, with transfers of the technology to developing countries, would enable us to accomplish both, to combine social justice with ecological sustainability.

– Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Climate Change Is a Moral Issue

US conservatives are up in arms about the encyclical, which attacks capitalism throughout, as well as consumerism, greed and selfishness. Two Republican candidates for President have dismissed the encyclical, including Jeb Bush, who is a Roman Catholic.

The Wall Street Journal panned the encyclical as an attack on free-market ideology:

Pope Blames Markets for Environment’s Ills

Pontiff condemns global warming as outgrowth of global consumerism

Pope Francis said human activity is the cause of climate change, which threatens the poor and future generations.

ROME— Pope Francis in his much-awaited encyclical on the environment offered a broad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy, accusing it of plundering the Earth at the expense of the poor and of future generations.

In passionate language, the pontiff attributed global warming to human activity, blamed special interests for holding back policy responses and said the global North owes the South “an ecological debt.”

The 183-page document, which Pope Francis addresses to “every person living on this planet,” includes pointed critiques of globalization and consumerism, which he says lead to environmental degradation.

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he writes.

The encyclical’s severe language stirred immediate controversy, signaling the weight the pontiff’s stance could have on the pitched debate over how to respond to climate change.

A nun read Pope Francis’ new encyclical at the Vatican on Thursday, the day it was published.ENLARGE
A nun read Pope Francis’ new encyclical at the Vatican on Thursday, the day it was published.PHOTO: MAX ROSSI/REUTERS

“Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain,” he writes. “As a result, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of the deified market, which become the only rule.”

The Vatican published the document, titled “Laudato Si” (“Be praised”), on Thursday. The official release came three days after the online publication of a leaked version by an Italian magazine.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, had described the leaked Italian text as a draft, but the final document, published in eight languages, differed only in minor ways, while the pope’s main points were identical. An encyclical is considered one of the most authoritative forms of papal writing.

In the encyclical, Pope Francis wades into the debate over the cause of global warming, lending high-profile support to those who attribute it to human activity.

A “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climactic system,” contributing to a “constant rise in the sea level” and an “increase of extreme weather events,” he writes.

“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” he adds.

While acknowledging natural causes for climate change, including volcanic activity and the solar cycle, Pope Francis writes that a “number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”

The pontiff goes on to argue that there is “an urgent need” for policies to drastically cut the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases and promote the switch to renewable sources of energy.

But the pope goes further by weaving his signature theme of economic justice and his vehement criticism of capitalism throughout the entire encyclical. 

The document alternates between passages of almost apocalyptic moralizing and more-technical language, including practical proposals for alleviating environmental problems.

Pope Francis opens the encyclical, which includes extensive sections on the theology of creation, with a lament for man’s sins against “Mother Earth”: “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

The pontiff later denounces past failures to enact bolder environmental policies. “The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected,” he writes.

The Argentina-born pontiff, the first in history to hail from the Southern Hemisphere, writes that the North owes the South en ecological debt because “developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”

The encyclical addresses other environmental problems besides climate change, including the “water poverty” of Africa and other poor regions where clean drinking water is scarce. The pope even advocates more environmentally conscious lifestyles, including reduced use of plastic, paper and water; separating trash; carpooling and turning off lights.

“We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world,” he writes.

The encyclical had been of enormous advance interest, especially after Pope Francis said he hoped it would make a contribution to an international environmental summit this autumn. Several oil companies offered their input to the Vatican office tasked with drafting the document.

Samuel Gregg, a Catholic who serves as director of research for the Acton Institute, a conservative ecumenical think tank that advocates for a free market, took exception to the pope’s economic premises, saying Pope Francis has “significant blind spots” with regard to market economies.

“When you read through the text, you find the free market, and finance in particular, is identified more or less as responsible for many environmental problems,” Dr. Gregg said. “It’s almost a subterranean theme of the encyclical.…In many respects, it’s a caricature of market economies.”

Pope Francis is likely to repeat his arguments about inequality and environmental degradation when he addresses a United Nations special summit on sustainable development in September in New York. He could also raise those topics earlier that week, in a scheduled speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, where the issue of climate change is highly controversial along partisan lines.

U.S. politicians were already weighing in even before the official version of the encyclical was published. Commenting on the draft leaked this week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who is a Catholic, said, “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”

Asked about Mr. Bush’s remark, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who is president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, replied that since “politics and economics have moral content,” politicians shouldn’t see religious pronouncements on those subjects as a burden.

Some Democrats instead evoked the pope’s position. “He is displaying the moral leadership that will be necessary in all sectors,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “Democrats, Republicans, people across the planet are starting to understand the magnitude of the climate challenge.”

Many of the world’s biggest oil companies have also been increasingly vocal on the issue of climate change, though they had no immediate response to the pope’s comments.

However, some industry groups were quick to play down the pope’s words. “To say that we need to get fossil fuels out of the mix, I don’t think is realistic,” said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive of the World Coal Association, in response to the pope’s call to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. “We need to make sure that we use those fossil fuels in the cleanest way possible.”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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