Pope Francis and his environmental encyclical

It's a little unfair to write about a document that hasn't been released yet, but the world is going to have to be prepared for Pope Francis's forthcoming encyclical on the environment, for well or ill, when it is released next month.  So far the auguries have been troubling for conservatives and climate skeptics, who question whether increased CO2 emissions by human civilization have caused the entire planet to dangerously warm up.

We do know that the Vatican's Cardinal Peter Turkson, who "helped write" the first draft of the encyclical, recently called global inequality and the destruction of the environment the twin "greatest threats we face as a human family today," and said that the pope is "pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little."

Presumably Cardinal Turkson believes that the record Antarctic ice-pack formations, and the fact of the worldwide "pause" in global warming since 1998, are simply inconvenient truths that distract from the pontiff's message of planetary danger.  But what other "ominous signs" in nature are there for Francis to address next month in his encyclical to the world's bishops?  Perhaps the cardinal means the fraudulent computer models that failed to predict the 1998-to-present "pause" in the first place.

Yesterday, in an audience with the Catholic charity Caritas, Pope Francis invoked the certainty of divine judgment upon those who would fail to protect the environment:

We must do what we can so that everyone has something to eat. But we must also remind the powerful of the earth that God will call them to judgment one day, and it will be seen if they truly tried to provide food for him in every person, and if they worked so that the environment would not be destroyed, but could produce this food.

Of course, Francis is right in principle that no one should go hungry, and that the means of avoiding that hunger – the globe's food production – should not be despoiled for short-term gain.  No thinking person disputes that.  Indeed, the globe itself is getting greener all the time.  If the encyclical is going to be limited to general bromides about the link between a healthy planet and healthy lives, the damage will be limited to that inflicted by specific quotations taken out of context by an environmentalist and anti-capitalist Western media.

But if, on the other hand, the encyclical is going to tread new ground, and pronounce on factual issues of scientific knowledge, and simply assert that "climate change" is human-caused and a real and present danger to the world, two problems arise: one for the general public, and one for Roman Catholics in particular.

For Catholics in particular, the problem is that we believe that the supreme pontiff is singularly protected by the intervention of the Holy Spirit from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. In theory, from a faithful Catholic's perspective, it is impossible for the pope to proclaim in an encyclical some position of morals or faith that is false.  If the pope were to solemnly assert that, as a matter of faith, Catholics must accept that global warming is real, human-caused, and endangering the world, we must then accept a proposition that appears to be contradicted by our own eyes: that the 18-year "pause" in warming does not exist.  Such a quandary is unlikely to increase the faith of Catholics in their Church's divine mission.

For the larger population of the world, such a pronouncement would undoubtedly feed the anti-growth rhetoric so prevalent amongst academics and those governing the Third World, and it would likely play a role in slowing the free-market reforms that have alone delivered millions from poverty all over the Earth, notably in Francis's own South America.  Catholics in the Third World would have nowhere to go for an alternative, for their government-academics will always tell them that market growth is bad, and their Church would ride in lockstep with their leaders.  Francis, a friend to the poor and downtrodden, would, alas, help encase the poor in their misery by helping to prevent growth in developing economies for fear of a nonexistent CO2 threat.

Yesterday Pope Francis told the delegates, "We ought to set the table for all and ask that there be a table for all."  Let us pray he means climate skeptics, too.

Christopher S. Carson is formerly with the American Enterprise Institute and holds a master's in national security studies from Georgetown University.