The much awaited papal encyclical on climate change and the environment that was finally released by the Vatican last week was also much dreaded in conservative circles within the Catholic Church as well as outside it. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si (Praise Be To You) is everything environmentalists and progressive Catholics expected it to be. But it isn’t exactly everything conservatives across the planet feared.
As much as the Western media make it appear that developed countries like the United States are doing all they can to arrest global warming and to protect the environment, the reality is that it has mostly been scientists’ groups and private environmental organizations that have been trying to do what they can to campaign against the continuing destruction of the environment by precisely the same “advanced” societies that have been pretending for years to be doing something about it.
In the US, for example, the extreme right-wing politicians who have hijacked the US Congress are still claiming that global warming is a hoax, despite the persistence of weather extremes. As a result, they are successfully persuading their constituencies to oppose any attempt to reduce carbon emissions (defined as any of the gases including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that contribute to global warming, or the greenhouse effect, by absorbing infrared radiation produced by solar warming of the Earth’s surface) through government regulation and commitment to worldwide agreements.
The US did sign the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 that commits signatories to reducing greenhouse emissions, but it never ratified it because of congressional opposition. Russia refused to ratify the Protocol until 2004, when it finally changed its mind. Canada initially committed to the Protocol but eventually withdrew from the treaty. China — one of the worst polluters together with India among the developing countries — has refused to sign, despite a nearly 500% increase in its factories’ emissions since 1997 and the visible pollution of the air of its major cities and the waters of its rivers.
The nongovernmental initiatives have included calls from the Occupy Movement for citizen action to halt global warming. There’s a coalition of 50 nongovernment organizations (NGOs) in Britain called Stop Climate Chaos. There are hundreds more across the globe, organized by citizens impatient with the slow progress of governmental attempts to halt climate change and environmental destruction. But there has been little coordination among these movements, which have for the most part been national rather than international in focus and scope.
Why the opposition from the governments of developed countries as well as those of such developing countries as India and China? The real reason is often hidden in a cloud of seemingly valid reasons. One is the argument that what the world is seeing as global warming is merely part of the natural climate cycle. Another is the declared assumption that no matter what you do to nature, the world can renew itself. Both obscure the fundamental and real reason, which Pope Francis has quite accurately pinpointed in the past: profit making, a phrase which doesn’t quite capture the immense and unremitting drive for billions and billions of dollars that’s behind the operations of the world’s biggest conglomerates, including those that claim to be committed to environmental protection.
The process has in fact never been as unregulated as in the current era of neo-liberal economics. Although critics of the encyclical who are capitalists or partisans of capitalism will see in the encyclical an attack on capitalism, one can argue that it’s not capitalism itself that’s necessarily the villain referred to when the encyclical blames profit making among others as responsible for the destruction of the environment, but neo-liberal capitalism, which since the 1980s has been the predominant form of capitalism that the most powerful governments and their partners (the US and the United Kingdom, for example) and the international finance institutions have been propagating.
Neo-liberalism, says Dr. Jodi Dean, professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Erasmus professor of the humanities at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, “is a philosophy [that views] market exchange as a guide for all human action… [it] holds that human freedom is best achieved through the operation of markets.”
Hence, “the primary role of the State is to provide an institutional framework for markets, establishing previously… neoliberalism inverts the early model of the State as a limiting, external principle supervising the market to make the market form itself the regulative principle underlying the State.”
Because neo-liberalism recognizes no regulation over corporations other than market forces, the consequence is, among others, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources. This explains why, in developed countries as well as in India and China, economic growth has been and is being achieved at the expense of the environment.
Growth — whose benefits have been in many cases limited to the already wealthy — has come at the terrible cost of climate change, which the Pope describes as “a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity today.”
Taking issue with those who claim that global warming is a hoax, Pope Francis points out that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”
To address what he referred to as the earth’s crying out, and “pleading that we take another course,” the encyclical declares that “humanity is called upon to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption in order to combat this warming or at least human causes which produce or aggravate it.”
Arresting global warming will require global action, this being only one world in which what happens in one country affects others. And yet, notes the encyclical, “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power [i.e.,the rich countries] mostly seem to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms… It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. 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 [i.e., undermining] the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”
Given these realities the encyclical itself recognizes, the hope that the encyclical will influence political and economic policy thus seems doomed from the very start. What then would be its use? Some academics hope that the encyclical will contribute to the argument for global action against climate change and the unremitting exploitation of the environment in the context of the continuing debate on whether global warming is indeed happening and what can be done to arrest it. But that seems a forlorn hope in a world in which the wealthy and powerful countries and the handful of families within them who benefit from the destruction of the environment are also in control of their politics. Only a huge global mass movement can make a dent on the policies of the world’s countries in this time of grave peril to all of humanity. That will take some doing. But thanks nevertheless to Pope Francis. May Laudato Si help make a difference.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Business World
June 25, 2015