The Pope and Climate Change

By Jay Richards

As part of my holiday reading, I’ve been working my way through the delightful new book on Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World. The book is the result of a six-hour interview with the Pope by journalist Peter Seewald. Although it’s divided into topical chapters, the chapters consist of questions from Seewald and answers from the Pope.

The benefit of this format is that it gives readers the sense that they are listening in on an intelligent, personal conversation with Pope Benedict. You feel like you know him better for having read the book. I heartily recommend it for that reason.

The disadvantage of a Q and A format is that the Pope must answer questions framed by someone else. Even before the book was released, the media (led by the New York Times) misreported that, in the book, the Pope had changed the Church’s position on contraception. But the limits of the interview format are especially obvious on the subject of climate change and environmental stewardship. Without too much trouble, the New York Times could (mis)report that Pope Benedict fully agrees with left-wing environmentalists.

In the preface there are signs of trouble when Seewald says “the ecological catastrophe continues unchecked.” And, at one point, Seewald even suggests that because Benedict has preached on the importance of our stewardship of the environment he could be comfortable as a member of the Green Party. For Seewald, these aren’t off-the-cuff observations, since he dedicates an entire chapter to the subject, entitled “The Global Catastrophe.”

Of course, many people are concerned about the environment, so it makes sense that the Pope would speak to this subject. But Seewald is over-the-top in framing the issue, which he says “increasingly resembles a global catastrophe”:

Because of climate change, the tropics are expanding, the sea level is rising. The poles are melting; holes in the ozone layer are no longer closing up. We are experiencing tragedies like the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, gigantic wildfires, unprecedented catastrophic floods, unexpected heat waves and periods of drought.

He goes on to quote the UN Secretary General, who claims the earth is “extremely at risk.” In a follow-up question he bemoans the lack of success at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

I’ll resist the temptation of disputing Seewald’s individual claims, some of which have no basis in fact, others of which might be evidence of warming (but not of the cause of the warming), and some of which have nothing whatsoever to do with climate change. What is clear is that, on this subject, Seewald doesn’t challenge extreme, even if widespread, claims about climate change, and instead treats them as uncontroversial facts.

Nevertheless, while Pope Benedict does not challenge Seewald’s summary of the “global catastrophe,” he deftly moves the subject onto more general, and defensible, ground. First, he reflects on the fact that “progress” divorced from the good is not desirable. Just because we can clone ourselves, for instance, doesn’t mean we ought to d so.

The Pope then talks about the necessity of individual moral conscience as a prerequisite for effective political action, and argues that we must be willing to do without some things. I agree, though I do not think the central problem in environmental stewardship is that there aren’t enough resources to go around.

The rest of the chapter discusses catastrophes of a different sort—the mounting debt crisis and the poisoning of modern man’s “moral ecology.” So what starts out looking like a tendentious treatment of environmental issues balances out in the end.

I hope that media reports of this chapter of Light of the World will take account of these details, but I’m not holding my breath.