Latest posts by H. Sterling Burnett (see all)
- Surveys Show Many Support Climate Action, But Only If It’s Really Cheap - October 22, 2019
- Save the Planet: Reform the Endangered Species Act - October 22, 2019
- United Nations Misleads About Food Production and Climate Change - October 10, 2019
I was honored, deeply honored, to be invited to participate in the first papal conference on climate change back in the spring of 2007, the Pontifical Council on Climate Change and Development. It is to my great and lasting regret that I was unable to participate in the conference which I believed would set the tone for future Papal explorations of the issue of climate change.
Mind you, though I’m Christian, I’m not a Catholic, still, the Pope is the leader of the largest Christian denomination on earth and for two thousand years those holding his office have spoken with authority on matters of morals and faith. I have great respect for the office and those holding the title.
Though the issue of climate change is usually thought of as a matter of science, in fact, though science is critical to understanding why and how our climate changes — contrary to popular belief still a matter of open debate — it provides no insight concerning how individuals or governments ought to respond to any threats or benefits that could arise from climate change. These are normative matters. As a moral philosopher by training, I have always argued that while facts may constrain or limit our ethical reach, after all ought does imply can, they rarely dictate our choices. Rather the natural world provides the resources with which and the backdrop against which humans interact with each other and nature and, depending upon the choices we make, the realm in which our actions can be judged as good or bad, right or wrong, which sometimes but not always can track what is efficient or inefficient.
In other words, religious leaders and moral philosophers do have special insight because of their training and study, concerning how we ought to respond to what scientist tell us about climate change, or at least what normative matters we ought to consider.
As I wrote earlier this year regarding Pope Francis’ decision to make battling climate change an important papal cause,
As the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world, he is charged not just with saving souls but also with alleviating the suffering of the world’s least fortunate, and with leading the Catholic Church in efforts to make the world a better place.
Having said this, I also know moral imperatives and public policies should be grounded in the best-available science, in the reality of the human condition, and in the state of both the planet and the people.
In regard to the latter point, when I have heard Pope Francis speak on the dangers of climate change, I believe he has been badly misinformed and led astray.
First, the Pope should understand the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is just that, a governmental panel with leaders chosen by, the course of research directed by, and what gets reported to the media determined and edited by (or in conjunction with) politicians, not scientists. From the outset, the deck was stacked, since the IPCC was not charged by the politicians establishing it with determining what causes climate change per se, but rather limited to studying the human causes of climate change. Unsurprisingly the very direction of the enterprise, despite the IPCC’s own admissions that it has little or even poor understanding of a majority of factors that affect the climate (see the graphic), dictated the outcome: human greenhouse gas emissions, not nature, was causing global warming. The IPCC has fallen into the instrument trap, “When one only has a hammer, one tends to see every problem as a nail.”
Leaving the political nature of the climate science endeavor behind, the Pope should note, a number of factors that should raise question about the dominant meme that human activities, primarily fossil fuel use, are causing dangerous climate change, so government’s must enact greenhouse gas emission restrictions to prevent future disaster.
As pointed out in a recent essay by Max Borders, “Models are not evidence.” Models present simulations of complex processes and when model projections diverge from the evidence, they, not the evidence, are not to be trusted. That is where we stand today, models offer scary projections of melting polar ice caps, species going extinct, more frequent and intense hurricanes and droughts, diminishing winters, crop failures and continuously rising temperatures – yet the actually data say that none of these predictions has come true. Indeed, in many instances, just the opposite is occurring. Crops are setting record yield as is Antarctica’s sea ice extent. Winter temperatures and snowfall show no sign of abating and global temperatures have stalled for 18 years despite rising greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, I hope the Pope recognizes, when model predictions diverge from reality, have faith in the evidence of our senses and instruments of measurement, not model projections.
Borders also two under-appreciated points about the models I believe are inexorably linked. Climate is complex, thus climate models simulating it are also invariably complex as well. However the more complex the model, the easier it is to introduce errors and model outputs are only as good as the inputs. “Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO)” must always be guarded against. The problem is, as climate modelers admit, there are many climate factors climate models are unable to account, for instance: cloud cover, persistent, periodic climate patterns like El Nino, volcanic eruptions, solar activity and long-term ocean circulation patterns. GIGO enters the modelling process from the get-go. This doesn’t mean modelling is a useless exercise, rather we should take model outputs with extreme caution. As Borders writes, “…the lower ‘res’ [resolution or scale] the model, the less it conforms to reality’s details. The higher ‘res’ the model, the more likely it is to be infected with errors. This is one of the great paradoxes of modeling.”
More importantly, the Pope should recognize that those pushing climate fears, and bans or strict limits on fossil fuel use, think people, God’s one creation endowed with a soul, are the problem. Many of them (if they are religious at all) worship the creation not the Creator. Whereas, according to the Bible, God said to mankind in blessing them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,” climate alarmists believe the earth is overpopulated and it is peoples’ desires for decent standards of living, longer, materially comfortable lives that is driving global warming. Many of the same people pushing the Pope to join the fight against climate change, support forceful population control programs like those operating in China. Hardly a Christian position.
The Pope clearly cares about the poor, and well he should as should we all. Having said that, the climate policies pushed in the West are absolutely the worst possible policies for alleviating poverty around the world. Any policy that denies people access to relatively inexpensive, abundant and reliable fossil fuels as sources for energy is a death sentence for millions around the world. The Pope should recognize, as written in a New York Times article recently, neither the environment nor people are helped when the West tries to suppress the use of fossil fuels for energy:
A typical American consumes, on average, about 13,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. The citizens of poor countries — including Nepalis, Cambodians and Bangladeshis — may not aspire to that level of use, … . But they would appreciate assistance from developed nations, and the financial institutions they control, to build up the kind of energy infrastructure that could deliver the comfort and abundance that Americans and Europeans enjoy.
Too often, the United States and its allies have said no.
“It is about pragmatism, about trade-offs,” said Barry Brook, professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “Most societies will not follow low-energy, low-development paths, regardless of whether they work or not to protect the environment.”
If billions of impoverished humans are not offered a shot at genuine development, the environment will not be saved. And that requires not just help in financing low-carbon energy sources, but also a lot of new energy, period. Offering a solar panel for every thatched roof is not going to cut it.
Caring for the poor, truly promoting their needs, requires more not less energy use.
In closing, if the Pope could read just one book about climate and energy to inform his ongoing efforts, I wish he would read Alex Epstein’s, clear, cogent, wonderful, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein takes human life, well-being, and flourishing as the standard of value public policy should maximize and examines fossil fuels strictly in relation to their ability to enhance or constrain human well-being. I quote at length from Epstein’s book the most important point I would have the Pope understand concerning climate change and humans:
Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to fossil fuels.… Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion has the issue backward. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.
To sum up: Restricting or ending fossil fuel use, not climate change, is the real recipe for disaster. It would set human civilization back centuries, ringing a true death knell for present and future generations. If the Pope wants to help the world’s poor, this is the message he should deliver.