The Pope’s Problem

Norm King
Norm King is a former city manager of three California cities and of the San Bernardino County transportation commission and has taught part-time at USC and Claremont McKenna College. He also served as past director of the Leonard Transportation Center at CSUSB

Pope Francis is using his concern about global warming as a vehicle to attack capitalism, to promote socialism and to emphasize his message about concern for the world’s poor. Personally I do believe that human-induced global warming is occurring. And I am sympathetic to his concern for the world’s poor but not his views on capitalism. But that is not the point. My primary concern is that the Pope has placed himself and his faithful in an untenable and illogical position which contradicts his own stated values.

The Pope has written: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes.”

This and other statements indicate his belief that capitalism, materialism and over-consumption are fueling the earth’s demise. However, if this were so why is it that the greatest increases in greenhouse gasses are fuming from the developing nations even as, in general, emissions from the more capitalistic western countries are stable or decreasing? Or does the Pope define “over-consumption” as the increased consumption by someone who moves from poverty to non-poverty?

Furthermore, and this is where the Pope’s contradiction becomes fully apparent, it is in the developing economies, as a consequence of using increasing amounts of fossil fuel, in which the greatest progress is being made to lift millions of people out of poverty – as has occurred at encouraging rates over the last twenty years. In other words unless the Pope would advocate that the world’s poor should remain in poverty he needs to acknowledge that increasing fossil fuel use is the only realistic way by which poverty in developing nations will be reduced in the foreseeable future.

Our dilemma is that our progress in creating a safer and healthier environment for today’s humans with clean water and adequate food has heretofore been made possible by the benefits of fossil fuels. The Pope and all of us who are concerned about climate change must deal honestly and up front with the difficulty of how to decrease poverty while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pope might wish to also acknowledge that by far most of the world’s subsidies which are allocated to carbon use, either calculated as direct subsidies or negative externalities, are most prevalent in the developing world. And those subsidies are often highest in non-capitalistic countries, such as Venezuela which sells gasoline at 6 cents a gallon at an annual cost of $22 billion. Gasoline subsides of this nature primarily go to more affluent consumers who can afford a car and are prompted primarily by the need of the government to buy political stability for their corrupt regimes.

The Pope and those having a genuine concern for the poor might also give more attention to the increasing volume of analysis which shows that if one is truly concerned about improving the human condition we would advocate programs and policies other than greenhouse emission programs and policies. In particular there is the work of Byorn Lomborg whose application of cost-benefit analysis to various options indicates that the following initiatives, among others, have a greater return as measured by decrease in human suffering than climate control investments: reduce arms trafficking; finance sustainable forest management; achieve universal access to drinking water and increase market access for “small-scale” artisanal fishers.

Though unlikely to receive the Pope’s blessing Lomburg writes, “Providing contraception to the 215 million women across the globe who lack access to it would reduce maternal mortality and boost growth, producing $120 in social benefits for each dollar spent.”

Reducing man-made climate changes is a noble goal, especially if evaluated and debated in context with other noble objectives such as reducing other types of human suffering.

But reducing greenhouse gasses won’t happen in places where those in power establish highly regulated economies and mandate justice by the redistribution of property.  As Joel Kotkin has noted, Argentina, the Pope’s birth nation, has “tumbled from a rich country status to a second or third world country” as a result of such policies.

It won’t happen in countries which do not encourage entrepreneurship, protect private property rights and promote competition, all of which create the conditions which are most likely to spawn energy conservation technological advances.

It won’t come from a spiritual transformation to renounce worldly goods or desires, as desirable as that may be from other perspectives.

It won’t come from enabling politicians to choose the “correct” green technologies to subsidize, such as our federal government’s disastrous ethanol subsidy program which has increased the world price of corn greatly affecting the world’s poor and has done nothing to reduce greenhouse gasses.

It won’t come by creating a piggy bank from which our state politicians pretend to reduce greenhouse gasses by spending cap and trade revenues on inefficient, feel-good initiatives such as high speed rail.

It will happen if we continue the trend of using a diminishing amount of carbon-dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced and by changing our carbon mix by substituting cleaner fossil fuels for dirtier fossil fuels.

It will come from all of us being more honest about the dilemma we face and the uncomfortable choice between the competing values of reducing greenhouse gasses and improving the material condition of the world’s impoverished.

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