Pope Francis issued a lengthy encyclical last week calling for radical change in human behavior to confront climate change. He presented climate change as the moral issue of our time. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” the pope declared. “It is a mistake to rely on the ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market),” he added. While denying that anyone is suggesting a return to the Stone Age and conceding that “[T]echnoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life,” Pope Francis refused to dismiss doomsday predictions if society continues along its present path.
The United Nations Secretary General position has been referred to by some as that of a “secular pope,” because he is expected to speak out on issues of public concern as the moral conscience of the world. On the issue of climate change, the current “secular pope” at the UN, Ban Ki-moon, spoke strongly in support of Pope Francis’s encyclical and said that he is looking forward to Pope Francis’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this September. Ban Ki-moon has made climate change his own number one issue and attended a summit on climate change hosted by the Vatican last April. He has called climate change “a true existential threat to the planet.” Ban Ki-moon is pushing for all UN member states to complete a legally binding global agreement to curb carbon emissions in Paris this December.
Assuming for the sake of argument that the problem of climate change is as serious as both the religious and secular popes think it is and that human activity is largely responsible for it, the question is how to address the problem without destroying the global economy in the process. Pope Francis rejects free market economics and technology as solutions. Ban Ki-moon is more ambivalent.
Stepping beyond his realm of religious authority, Pope Francis has taken sides in the policy debate regarding how best to reduce reliance on fossil fuels that are creating heat-trapping gasses. Don’t rely on free market mechanisms such as cap and trade, he warns.
“The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide,” Pope Francis said. “This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”
This portion of the encyclical flies in the face of sound economic analysis and common sense. Carbon trading systems, which Pope Francis has specifically singled out for criticism, and carbon taxes are two ways to put a specific price on carbon that would have to be paid for one way or the other directly by the carbon emitter rather than indirectly as a negative externality by society as a whole.
As the World Bank explains:
“A price on carbon helps shift the burden for the damage back to those who are responsible for it, and who can reduce it. Instead of dictating who should reduce emissions where and how, a carbon price gives an economic signal and polluters decide for themselves whether to discontinue their polluting activity, reduce emissions, or continue polluting and pay for it. In this way, the overall environmental goal is achieved in the most flexible and least-cost way to society. The carbon price also stimulates clean technology and market innovation, fuelling new, low-carbon drivers of economic growth.”
Pope Francis is not swayed by such arguments. Technology is no answer to the problem of climate change, according to his encyclical. “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up,” he said, “is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” Continuing this theme, the pope added that the “alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.”
Pope Francis’s prescription is more stringent and enforceable global governance. He calls for “global regulatory norms” and “stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.” He also espouses “a better distribution of wealth,” which would include a massive transfer wealth from developed countries to the less developed countries on the theory that the richer countries are largely responsible for the plight of the poor and owe them an historical debt. The pope does not use the term “reparations,” but that is for all and intents and purposes what he is calling for.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cannot afford to be as dismissive as Pope Francis is of market place carbon pricing mechanisms or of the importance of innovation as part of the solution to any environmental problems created by climate change and human activity. Nor would he be wise to push the notion of a global environmental authority with enforcement teeth.
The global agreement that the Secretary General is seeking by the end of this year is premised on national commitments to carbon reduction targets, which are to be accomplished through nationally crafted solutions that may or may not embrace market incentives and technology, depending on their particular economic, social and cultural circumstances. The World Bank, with whom the Secretary General has partnered, supports carbon pricing to bring down fossil fuel carbon emissions and make cleaner options more competitive. According to the World Bank, as of last September “[S]eventy-three countries and 11 states and provinces – together responsible for 54 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 52 percent of GDP – joined 11 cities and over 1,000 businesses and investors in signaling their support for carbon pricing.”
Choice of means to reduce carbon emissions at the national level, not top-down dictates from global bureaucracies, will be the only viable path if any sort of meaningful climate change agreement at all among UN member states is to be achieved.
Thus, if Ban Ki-moon were to come out and reject market place carbon pricing mechanisms such as cap and trade, he would be working at cross-purposes with his stated goal of moving the member states towards declaring their national commitments to carbon reduction as part of a year-end binding global agreement. In fact, he has in the past come out in support of putting an explicit price on carbon as one option for consideration.
Yet Ban Ki-moon does not want to publicly disassociate himself from the portion of Pope Francis’s encyclical that rejects free market solutions. In response to my question on this point at the daily press briefing at UN headquarters on June 12th, the spokesperson for the Secretary General minimized any differences between the religious and secular popes:
“I think the Secretary‑General very strongly supports the Pope's efforts to ensure that climate change remains at the top of the global agenda and to mobilize his authority, his moral authority, in that regard. The fact that the Pope and the Secretary‑General may not agree on every line, on every approach, I think, doesn't take away in any way the Secretary‑General's support for the encyclical… we are not dissecting the encyclical to see where we differ with the Pope… overall I think the Secretary‑General spoke strongly in support of the encyclical and continues to do so.”
Pope Francis would have been more credible if he had not tried to cross the line from religious leader to secular public policy opinion maker in his encyclical. And the UN Secretary General will be more credible if he sheds the role of “secular pope” who over-moralizes the issue of climate change. Instead, Ban Ki-moon should stick to the fine art of quiet diplomacy and negotiation facilitation. He can provide member states and the private sector with a global perspective on the effects of climate change, including the assembly of data and more balanced scientific analysis. He and his expert staff can help the member states try to devise practical and efficient targets and means to achieve them within their respective capabilities. He can help encourage businesses to make investments in alternative energy sources and cleaner fossil fuel technologies. He can suggest how developed countries could partner with less developed countries in overcoming obstacles to beneficial change and coming up with smart carbon emission mitigation strategies, without insisting they owe an enormous debt to developing countries as Pope Francis has done. Without the greatest engine for betterment of the human condition that the world has ever known - the free market and its concomitant of technological change – much of the world today would be living in far more dire circumstances reminiscent of the rigidity, disease and poverty of pre-Renaissance feudal society.
Economic freedom and individual liberties must not be sacrificed at the altar of religious or secular dogma, including the dogma that climate change is an immediate existential crisis and that it can only be solved by top-down dictates and government-controlled wealth redistribution.
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