Sorry Pope Francis, the State of the Planet Is Getting Better

Correcting the mistruths in the Pope's encyclical.

Last week, Pope Francis released his controversial environmental Encyclical, Praised Be, to the public.  It is not simply a matter of global warming endangering the planet, he writes.  The Pope has a comprehensively dark vision of the world.  He writes that

The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth…beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish…. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.

In other words, the Industrial Revolution is to blame for covering the planet in rubbish.  But if it’s covered in trash, it’s a strange kind of trash that has caused global crop yields to increase by 160 percent since 1961 and deaths from droughts to be reduced by 99.8 percent since the 1920s.

It’s an odd kind of “mistreatment” of the planet over the life of the Industrial Revolution that’s resulted in the global life expectancy rising from 26 years in 1750 to 69 years in 2009.  This is in spite of the fact that Earth’s population increased from 760 million to 6.8 billion and incomes (in real dollars) rose from $640 to $7,300 during the same period.  The Pope made no mention of the fact that CO2 emissions rose by 2,800 times over this same span.

If the globe were truly turning into a great heap of exploited waste, you would expect natural resources to become more expensive as the cost of extracting rises and scarcity becomes the norm.  But natural commodities are cheaper today than ever.  The real price of almost all natural resources - from iron to salt to coal - is cheaper today in than 50 or 500 years ago.  In Britain, artificial light is 20,000 times cheaper per man hour worked than it was in 1300.

On a global scale, with only a few exceptions like China, air and water is cleaner than ever. Since the late 1970s, pollutants in the air have plunged.  In advanced countries, lead pollution declined by almost 100 percent, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide by more than 50 percent; ozone and nitrogen dioxide declined as well. A car today emits less pollution cruising at full speed than a parked car did in 1970.  In the America of 1900, about 25% of all deaths were from contaminated drinking water.  Today, hardly anyone here dies from this scourge.  The Pope seems oblivious to the fact that the richer the nation is, the cleaner its environment.

Despite the masses wading around in the Pope’s seas of “filth,” and despite a world population of 7.3 billion, the poorer countries’ incomes have surged since 1975; since 1981, the number of Earth’s people in extreme poverty fell by an amazing 1 billion, even as the population increased by more than 1.5 billion.

But if there is one environmental issue that most exercises the Supreme Pontiff, it is global warming.  “A very solid scientific consensus,” he writes, “indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events.”

Well, the warming over “recent decades” apparently does not include the last two decades, because over the past 18 years no net increase in global temperature has been recorded, despite the atmosphere’s CO2 content rising by 8 percent.  Both the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica have this year posted record high ice packs.

The Pope’s letter seems quite concerned about the poor of Africa experiencing crop failures as a result of global CO2 emissions.  But the opposite appears to be true: CO2 is plant food, and the rising CO2 levels are helping to water and green the continent.

According to a 2007 study in the science journal Geology, Africa is currently “experiencing an unusually prolonged period of stable, wet conditions in comparison to previous centuries of the past millennium. … The patterns and variability of 20th century rainfall in central Africa have been unusually conducive to human welfare in the context of the past 1400 years.”

If the trends of higher CO2 concentrations continue, and political strife abates, Africa, far from being a ruined land of desiccated drought, could well become the breadbasket of the world.  All it needs from the West is fertilizer and genetically hardened crop strains that resist insect damage.

“Praised be” God; praised be also Mankind, which has so rapidly improved his lot and that of his Earthly home.

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