The Holy Climatologist

Pope Francis has released his second encyclical, titled Laudato si’, subtitled On the Care of Our Common Home, in which he lowers the papal boom on mankind for its reckless stewardship of the planet, proclaiming that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system” and that, although “it is true that there are other factors” (like volcanic activity, the solar cycle, and variations in the earth’s orbit), “most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”

Predictably, this message doesn’t sit so well with faithful adherents to the conservative persuasion, which apparently teaches that what God has created, unborn human life excepted, man is not powerful enough to destroy.

Generally speaking, conservatives regard with messianic skepticism the possibility, indeed backed by a near-universal scientific consensus, that the climatological peculiarities we presently experience might be, to a non-trivial degree, anthropogenic—a kind of skepticism these very same people conspicuously failed to muster when it came to the near-universal consensus that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of WMDs that supposedly posed an existential threat to the United States and its allies.

Could it be that the Iraq debacle has taught the right to be a trifle less gullible of what the majority of experts say?

More likely, owing to quirk of human nature, whether we throw in with the mainstream or with a dissenting minority on a given controversy—whether we choose to err or not to err on caution’s side—is governed less by a dispassionate quest for the truth than it is a function of which camp happens to reflect our personal biases.

Recall how back in 2002, it was those opposed to invading Iraq who, no matter how much WMD evidence was piling up, kept asking for more, prompting Letterman to joke that “the last time France asked for more proof, it came marching into Paris under a German flag”; whereas those who from the get-go couldn’t wait to topple Saddam branded it the epitome of pie-in-the-sky irresponsibility to demand 100% certainty before taking action toward diffusing a looming menace.

Yet on climate, it is precisely that latter group that demands 100% certainty in an effort to run out the clock, hoping to justify inaction on account of evidence collection not having completed yet, until the rubicon is crossed such that all potential efforts to combat climate change will be futile no matter what anyway, a state of affairs that will, once again, furnish the basis for justifiable inertia. That way, conservatives can seamlessly segue from one excuse to do nothing to the next.

Ergo, as one would expect, Pope Francis is being given hairy eyeballs aplenty for his climate stance from those who fail to see their biases reflected in it (just as he is garnering plaudits from those who do).

For instance, in his latest post, the often insightful Bernard Goldberg reminds us that “the Catholic Church has a spotty record when it comes to pronouncements on science. Can you say, Galileo?”

Goldberg goes on to declare that “I don’t need a pope, who is not a climate expert, throwing his substantial weight around trying to influence government policies”—wait, is he saying that if Pope Francis were a climate expert, throwing his weight thus around would be OK?

Of course not, because if the pope were an accredited climatologist (much like Angela Merkel is a physicist and Bashar al-Assad an ophthalmologist), Goldberg & Co would simply move to dismiss his views alongside those of all the other “doomsday scenario” climate experts and “true believers” that stray from conservative orthodoxy, which religiously puts forth that environmental concerns, although perhaps not entirely invalid on all fronts, have no place on the list of our Top 100 most serious threats to lose sleep over.

Goldberg explicitly endorses Jeb Bush’s statement that “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. … I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Sooner or later, alas, most moral issues end up in the political realm. Oddly enough, I’ve yet to hear a right winger harsh on the pope for taking a stand against abortion or against Islamic terrorism, matters than can hardly be seen as alien to the political realm. If the pontiff were to keep to his cassock on all matters that bear political-football potential, his next encyclical will be on candle-making. (Bad example, but you gather my meaning.)

Needless to say, nobody, Bush and Goldberg respectfully included, could care less whether the pope, or anyone else for that matter, is an expert on a topic he or she expands upon, or what realm that topic might end up in, provided that the substance of his or her message is appreciated.

Isn’t it funny how no ever bothers to point out a person’s lack of qualification to mouth off on an issue if what s/he is saying strikes a palatable chord? Except, of course, in order to extol the speaker’s intuitive understanding of the matter at hand, or his judicious selection of advisers, in spite of his non-expertise.

In other words, whether your quality of not being an expert works in your favor or against you hinges on whether and how much a given critic concurs with what you’re saying.

So if you don’t know what you’re talking about, shut the hell up—unless I happen to agree with you, in which case, by all means, keep talking, as the world needs common-sense voices like yours.

Another quirk of human nature.

  • Richard

    It is hard to justify the promotion of a political issue to a theological one. The Pope, in my view, fails to achieve this.

    • Cyberquill

      He makes it a moral issue, a right vs. wrong one. He’s warning against reading the biblical decree to subjugate the earth and everything that creepeth and crawleth upon it as carte blanche for reckless behavior. Sounds to me like it might fall within the ambit of theology.

      • Richard

        Does he? Well, a mere invocation of theological issues does not necessarily promote a political issue to theological status, Pope or not.

        • Cyberquill

          If the pope were to stay clear of issues that are being vigorously debated in the political arena so as to avoid mixing politics and theology, he couldn’t speak out on lots of things, including war and abortion. Who says the treatment of our planet isn’t a fundamentally theological issue co-opted by politicians rather than the other way around?

          • Richard

            I see nothing wrong in the Pope speaking out on political issues.

        • Cyberquill

          But how do you distinguish political from theological? Just because an issue is being used as a political football doesn’t mean it’s solely a political issue to the exclusion of everything else. If God created Earth and left it to man to manage and husband, how can man’s treatment of it fail to rise into the theological realm?

          • Richard

            Theological matters address the individual conscience. Any differences exposed are to be resolved not collectively, not by controversy, not by instruction but internally and privately.

            Politics is social and external and seeks common solutions, whether by domination or compromise.

            Politics may be informed by theology but the reverse is not true. Theology is informed my the conduct of those engaged in political debate or conflict. The controversy of climate change is a live one, conducted at a social level.

            An individual may adapt his religious beliefs or abandon them altogetherc and in the process experience agonies of doubt, but never resolution or controversy.

            Political issues frequently masquerade as religious ones, as in the Spanish Inquisition, or an individual may regard a political issue as religious one, but there can be no mix.

  • Richard

    I take it all back. Theology is not the same as belief.

    What I was objecting to was the use of theology by the Pope from his position of influence to promote adherence to a political point of view as though it were a question of belief and therefore of theological salvation.

    It’s what, in contract law and in the law of wills, we call undue influence. It is presumed in the relation of priest and flock and the contract or will is rendered void.

    • Cyberquill

      As I see it, how we treat our planet is a question of, if not theology, then at least morality in a sense that there’s a right way to treat it and a wrong way to treat it. I’d argue that matters that address individual conscience are particularly prone to spilling over into politics, as we’d all like to see our personal conscience reflected in the laws of the land.

  • Richard

    As a result of this discussion, I have had to add a comment to Cheri’s post on moral inversion. The comment currently awaits moderation.

    • Cyberquill

      I second Cheri in that your radicalism could use some moderation.

      • Richard

        Moderation in all wings, that’s what I say. No flytipping.