WASHINGTON – Reducing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si to a white paper on global warming is, in George Weigel’s fitting analogy, “akin to reading ‘Moby Dick’ as if it were a treatise on the 19th-century New England whaling industry.” The whole spirit and story of the thing is missed.
The pope’s sprawling, ambitious statement – setting out a theory of nature and of the human person – will be profitably scrutinized for decades. Environmentalists who like some of Francis’ conclusions will find, if they sit quietly with the text rather than rummaging through it for the politically relevant bits, that the pope is making a frontal assault on a technological and utilitarian worldview that treats creation as “raw material to be hammered into useful shape,” reduces humans to mere consumers and treats inconvenient people as so much refuse.
In the pope’s vision, both nature and human nature are gifts to be appreciated and accepted, not despoiled or redefined. And the ultimate demonstration of God’s attitude toward nature is the incarnation, in which the creator – so the remarkable story goes – somehow became a crawling, puking, sleeping, living, dying creature, occupying a biological niche, in a thin layer of air, on a floating, fragile ball.
Francis is offended – infuriated, really – by how humans have treated their home and one another. And he has particularly harsh words for habits of consumption and exploitation in rich countries. The pope is frankly distrustful of global capitalism and the “logic of markets.” It is fair to say that Francis has a broader understanding of the (very real) flaws of the developed world than he has of the economic conditions that might allow large numbers of poor people to join the developed world. But an uncomfortable relationship with modernity – including classical liberal economics – is hardly new in Catholic social thought.
The pope’s environmental concerns are broad (clean drinking water and biodiversity rank high). But there is no getting around the fact that Francis regards potentially catastrophic, human-caused global warming as a fact. “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system. … A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases … released mainly as a result of human activity.”
In American politics, the pope’s encyclical has not made legislative action on climate change inevitable; but it has made the issue unavoidable. The politician’s shrug, “I’m no scientist,” is no longer acceptable. If climate change is a global threat, addressing it, as the pope argues, is both a moral and public requirement.
But the dysfunctional American debate on climate change illustrates a broader challenge. Ten or 15 years ago, this issue was less divisive. But it got pulled into the polarization vortex. And now the two sides do not merely hold different policy views, they have different versions of reality. The camps not only advocate different solutions; they inhabit different factual universes.
Many conservative Republicans now deny the existence or danger of human-caused warming and routinely question the motives of scientists who speak up on the issue. For a conservative to stray from skepticism is regarded as ideological betrayal.
In a recent National Affairs essay, Jim Manzi and Peter Wehner provide an explanation: “The Republican position – either avowed ignorance or conspiracy theorizing – is ultimately unsustainable, but some still cling to it because they believe that accepting the premise that some climate change is occurring as a result of human action means accepting the conclusions of the most rabid left-wing climate activists. They fear, at least implicitly, that the politics of climate change is just a twisted road with a known destination … ceding yet another key economic sector to government control.”
This is the temptation of the ideologically intense on left and right: Truth exists to serve the narrative rather than the narrative arising from truth. It is a malady easy to see in others and harder to diagnose in ourselves. But it is dangerous to democracy. Without a common factual basis, it is impossible to make incremental progress on public matters. All that remains are shouting matches and power plays.
The pope’s views on climate change are shared by every national academy of science in the world, including our own. But, as Manzi and Wehner demonstrate in their essay, there are distinctly conservative responses to global warming, particularly in promoting energy innovation.
Conservatives can choose their policy reaction, but not their own reality.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.