Scientific American asked physicist Lawrence Krauss to comment on Pope Francis’s long encyclical on global warming. Krauss’s piece, “Ideology subsumes empiricism in Pope’s climate encyclical,” gives to the Pope with one hand but slaps him with the other.
Krauss lauds the Pope for the his no-nonsense acceptance of anthropogenic global warming, and his warning that climate change has the most severe impact on the poor. But then Krauss faults Francis for his solution, which is apparently to blame consumerism and rule population control out of bounds (see quotes at bottom). Krauss:
An encyclical wouldn’t be an encyclical without theology however, and that is where problems arise. In a chapter entitled “Gospel of Creation” Francis ruminates poetically on the nature of man, the mystery of the cosmos (my own area of study) and the special duty Christians have to respect nature, humanity and the environment. It’s beautifully presented and sounds good in principle. However, his biblical analysis leads to the false conclusion that contraception and population control are not appropriate strategies to help a planet with limited resources.
. . . Here, ideology subsumes empiricism, and the inevitable conflict between science and religion comes to the fore. One can argue until one is blue in the face that God has a preordained plan for every zygote, but the simple fact is that if one is seriously worried about the environment on a global scale population is a problem. A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level in which all humans have adequate food, water, medicine and security. Moreover, as this pope should particularly appreciate, the environmental problems that overpopulation creates alsodisproportionately afflict those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited.
. . . The Catholic Church and its leaders can never be truly objective and useful arbiters of human behavior until they are willing to dispense with doctrine that can thwart real progress. In this sense, the latest encyclical took several steps forward, and then a leap back.
In an email discussion of this piece among several of us, Steve Pinker wrote that the Pope didn’t go far enough (remarks quoted with permission):
I’d say several steps back, actually. It’s not just reproductive rights. The pontiff continues in the millennia-long Catholic tradition of vilifying technology, commerce, and ordinary people enjoying the fruits of material progress. So he puts the blame on economics and consumerism. But the solution to climate change is not to moralize from on high and implore people—particularly the poor people who he claims to sympathize with—to learn to be abstemious for the common good and do without central heating, electric lights, and efficient transport. Billions of people aren’t going to do that. Not even the Pope—especially not the Pope—is going to do that. The solution is economic and technological: a global carbon tax, and investment in the development of new energy technologies. The Pope shows no signs of acknowledging this, because it leaves him and his church no special role.
In Chapter 6 of The Bicycle, the pontiff includes a section called “Towards a New Lifestyle,” blaming individual consumerism while, in the previous chapter, he exculpates population growth. I quote from the text (my emphases):
(Chapter 6) 206. A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act”. Today, in a word, “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle”.
Nota bene from Chapter 5:
50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.
Apparently, condoms are not the solution. But who would ever think that the Vatican would see population growth as the cause of any problem? As Krauss notes, here we see a direct conflict between a scientific and a religious solution.