WelCom December 2021
It’s time to take the Pope Francis-approach to climate change
The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was a tale of two cities: one afloat on bold pledges and new promises, the other sinking under the weight of ‘Greta Mania’ and the chants of ‘blah, blah, blah’ from the followers of the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Not even Barack Obama’s celebrated oratory or a surprise US-China cooperation pact could reconcile the differences.
To better understand the contrast, we can explore another pair of cities: Paris, where a climate accord was hammered out in 2015, versus Rome and its body of Catholic thought. They reveal vastly different perspectives on climate change.
The Paris climate agreement of 2015 was heralded as a major accomplishment, but what was achieved after two decades of negotiations? Voluntary intentions by countries to do better, called Nationally Determined Contributions. These are a bit like New Year’s resolutions, albeit on a grander scale, and we all know the fate of such resolutions. True to form, the Paris resolutions are falling well short of the mark.
“We should not have expected anything more out of Paris than weak volunteerism rooted in narrow national self-interest.”
But we should not have expected anything more out of Paris than weak volunteerism rooted in narrow national self-interest. The global system of neoliberalism and the structure of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change predisposed the Paris Agreement to be limited in vision and inadequate to the demands of climate change. To expect otherwise is to expect, in Cervantes’ words, a pear from an elm tree.
The Paris approach had everything backward. It began with the scientific data of global warming and manufactured elaborate methods to stop it, never pondering the larger question of, ‘To what ends?’ Rome, or the Catholic Church, begins rightly by defining life’s purpose and then searches for socio-political structures that will get us there.
Paris takes as its starting point the Hobbesian view that the natural state of humanity is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Rome starts with the Genesis claim that creation ‘is good, it is good, it is very good’. Paris expects virtuous behaviour from an anthropological premise that privileges self-interest and individual liberty. Rome understands that virtue flows from the pursuit of the common good defined by solidarity, charity and reciprocity.
Paris asks us to reason our way to ecological sustainability from an ideological starting point of planetary plunder. Rome encourages us to use Ignatian spirituality to seek God in all things while instructing us that we are all stewards of the earth.
“Paris asks us to reason our way to ecological sustainability from an ideological starting point of planetary plunder. Rome instructs us that we are all stewards of the earth.”
Paris seeks climate solutions through an elaborate system of transactional market exchanges. Rome instructs us that salvation comes through the grace of covenantal, not contractual, relationships. Paris seeks solutions fuelled by the profit motive, encouraged by market reforms and ‘green growth’. Rome is driven by the motive of the prophet who speaks of love, justice and forgiveness shorn of any enchantment of mammon.
Rome therefore informs the climate change challenge on two levels: the epistemological, by properly framing the question and identifying the root causes of the problem; and the practical, by offering operational principles upon which socio-political solutions can emerge.
The Roman document that most obviously serves as counterpoise to the Paris Agreement is Laudato si’. Pope Francis instructs us that all things are connected and that climate change, social injustice and economic inequality are inextricably linked. Throughout the encyclical, Francis explains how our idolatry of the machine and our unbridled pursuit of narrow self-interest crowd out any sense of justice and the common good.
“Catholic social thought –emphasising the primacy of personalism and solidarity – tells us that local action illuminates the roadmap to climate solutions.”
The encyclical reveals that the outer work of climate change is dependent upon the inner work of spiritual awareness. Paris’ market mechanisms and technological fixes, while helpful in pushing us in the right direction, fail to ask where that path leads. New technologies can help ameliorate the symptoms of climate change, but they can never address the sources of climate change.
Catholic social thought – emphasising the primacy of personalism and solidarity – tells us that local action illuminates the roadmap to climate solutions. The principle of subsidiarity also tells us that while international agreements may be necessary in certain circumstances, our default should be the local community. Climate change and renewable energy policy speak to this principle, as local jurisdictions are consistently at the forefront of creative climate action. In this respect, the Church’s preferential option for the poor (and for the planet) rests on a preferential nod to the local.
The Church emphasises the public square, where we come together not as consumers to accumulate but as citizens to deliberate in pursuit of the common good. This deliberation emphasises healing and restoration, not punishment and retribution. Thus, the pursuit of the Jesuit goal of cura personalis, or caring for the whole person, may cumulatively lead to cura planetis.
This article was originally published in America The Jesuit Review, 12 November 2021.
Griffin Thompson is an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago. He formerly worked at the US State Department as a lead climate-change negotiator for the United States and as manager of State Department-funded climate-change programmes during the Obama administration, and has also served as director of the State Department’s Office of Renewable Energy. Loyola University Chicago, Illinois, a private Jesuit research university, founded in 1870 by the Society of Jesus, is one of the largest Catholic universities in the United States.