Review of the Pope’s Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’
By Dr Anthony Horton
Upon review of the Pope’s Laudato Si’ from the point of view of a scientist working in the climate change space, I believe that overall, Pope Francis has successfully elucidated the significance of the issues related to climate change and in particular the role that every human being must play and the need for each of us to act rather than being complacent. Few people (if anyone) would still argue (if they ever did) that those fortunate enough to live in relative security and comfort should not spare a thought for those less fortunate and who find themselves struggling with the daily reality of survival in the context of poverty. In having this theme as a central tenet of his Encyclical, Pope Francis correctly establishes the lens through which climate change needs to be viewed, discussed and acted upon-this being a social justice/equity as well as an environmental issue.
Having reviewed numerous recent publications, online articles and posts on social media, I feel it is important to establish early that indeed climate change is being increasingly viewed and discussed as a social justice/equity issue, and indeed programs are emerging in a number of sectors that demonstrate concrete actions to assist the poor to deal with climate change in some way-whether it be financial assistance or initiatives such as free solar panels for their houses.
As a scientist I must also say that the style of the Encyclical letter was certainly not typical of the documents I typically review or write, and so from that point of view, it represented a challenge in terms of the breadth and generality with which some ideas were discussed and their order-the document jumped around quite frequently. That said, obviously the target audience wasn’t solely the scientific community and it was well worth persisting until the end in order to fully appreciate the message within the letter.
While I found myself agreeing with a number of the points and messages in the Encyclical, I think it is important to highlight a few points that need to be aired in any discussion of climate change from a scientific perspective. Firstly, the growth in the Earth’s population is a significant issue on its own-and while it is obviously part of the climate change challenge-it needs to be addressed in any balanced scientific discussion. I am challenged by the assertion that blaming population growth is somehow refusing to face the issues. Most people would recognise that the majority of the earth’s resources are being stretched and that this would continue with increasing population growth rates.
It is important to say here that the reality of climate change is bringing population growth rates into sharper focus from the perspective that the mobility of populations (either necessitated by climate change or as a result of a desire for a better standard of living thought to be found in urban areas near cities) brings new pressures to the areas where these mobile populations eventually settle. Peoples’ want for some of the symbols of a better standard of living (larger houses, motor vehicles etc) also inevitably add emissions into the mix, which when multiplied by every person living in the same area and wanting the same symbols, becomes a significant issue.
On a number of occasions in the Encyclical, Pope Francis challenged individuals or leaders/authority figures to step up and grasp the reality of the situation we face with respect to climate change. I would offer US President Barack Obama as an example of a leader who has already heeded this call and has implemented a number of policies which are demonstrating world leadership. The leaders of many other countries have also shown similar leadership on behalf of their constituents. As a result, well recognised and market leading brands are implementing their own commensurate internal emissions management and reduction policies and challenging the very way they do business.
I must admit to also being challenged by the Encyclical’s perspective of technology and in particular its motivations and shortcomings. As one who works in a space in which a variety of technology is available (and indeed very useful) I feel it is important to acknowledge that technology has evolved in ways that facilitate human collaboration and participation rather than just using it as a means to obtain an output that is to be believed and can somehow explain the particular aspect under investigation without the operator questioning or “sense checking”.
I was also somewhat surprised by the assertion that humans are predominantly wired to extract/exploit energy resources as they renew themselves quickly and that any negative effects can somehow be easily absorbed. As someone who dedicates time each week to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, I would point to Divestment movements that can gain rapid momentum given the constant news cycle and immediate nature of communication in today’s society. A number of very high profile companies, Religious and Education institutions have also announced plans to divest significant proportions of their fossil fuel and other energy intensive investments. While some may argue divestment should go further, I think its existence and spread is symbolic of a shift in thinking and behaviour away from simply “mass exploitation at any cost”. I would also offer social media platforms as a tool for environmental education-although obvious caution is needed in terms of source and “sense” checking.
I commend the inclusion of the discussion of approaches and actions within the Encyclical, even if I am challenged by some of the points of view. There is increasing evidence that pricing carbon is bringing about the very challenge placed squarely at its feet in the document-that buying and selling carbon credits simply lead to speculation that would not help to reduce emissions. The sheer number of emissions trading schemes/cap and trade schemes in operation around the world and the nationalisation of China’s pilot schemes early next year points to the seriousness with which markets view emissions reduction. While I am not naïve to suggest that markets are the answer to everything, the indications to date show that in this case, the market is certainly responding positively and emissions are being reduced.
I also commend the inclusion of the discussion of the precautionary principle in the Encyclical, even if it wasn’t explicit. I would add that a number of the points expressed in the discussion of environmental protection could be addressed by a discussion of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process. In brief, this process takes into account all of the environmental aspects of a project, the impact of that project on each aspect and appropriate mitigation measures for each impact.
I also couldn’t discuss the Encyclical from a scientific perspective without noting the slightly incorrect interpretation of the greenhouse effect in terms of the statement that gases in the atmosphere don’t allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The point regarding increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and the intensive use of fossil fuels was however well made and is valid.
From a local perspective, the Encyclical certainly elucidates and reinforces the need for all of us to act and that action must occur now, and is therefore aligned with recent announcements by Archbishop Costelloe that complacency is not an option.
About the author: Anthony Horton holds a PhD in Environmental Science, a Bachelor of Environmental Science with Honours and a Diploma of Carbon Management. He has a track record of delivering customised solutions in Academia, Government, the Mining Industry and Consulting based on the latest wisdom and his scientific background and experience in Climate/Atmospheric Science and Air Quality. Anthony’s work has been published in internationally recognised scientific journals and presented at international and national conferences, and he is currently on the Editorial Board of the Journal Nature Environment and Pollution Technology. Anthony also blogs on his own site, The Climate Change Guy.