Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical letter, “Laudato Si,” on climate change, poverty and inequality, and capitalism, has generated a blitz of media commentaries that are both supportive and critical. Given the highly charged nature of the climate change debate, the growing concerns about the social impacts of capitalism and the popularity of the Pope, such widespread reactions are to be expected.
Virtually all commentators have assumed, or fear, that the Encyclical will have a significant impact upon national delegations that will assemble in Paris in December to try and finalize a climate change agreement, in addition to motivating a broader debate about the social impacts of capitalism as currently practiced. Their reasoning reveals more of their own objectives and desired outcomes rather than a realistic assessment of the Encyclical’s likely impact.
Contrary to this conventional opinion, the Encyclical’s influence is limited by several important factors. First, it was published too late to affect policy decisions of the most influential national climate negotiators. Many areas of agreement have already been achieved, and delegates will be guided by more tangible and secular national and economic interests as they attempt to resolve the remaining issues. Many national delegations already feel the wind at their backs to successfully broker an agreement. This wind could become even stronger following the upcoming summit meeting in Washington between US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Compared to these heavyweights, the Pope’s influence will be large exhortatory as the Vatican is not constituted to deliver financial aid, technical support or other forms of assistance to nations impacted by climate change nor does it possess the means to do heavy lifting during the actual negotiations. Pope Francis can urge the nations to do more to reduce climate change impacts, but the science, the process and the potential outcomes have been well defined well before his entry into the conversation.
Second, Laudato Si offers a significant critique of the current system of investor and state-driven market capitalism and points to a number of flaws in the current system, including poverty, inequality, and the disproportionately adverse consequences of climate change to those lacking economic opportunity. Ironically, the Encyclical is silent on the issue of women’s empowerment, a major avenue for building economic capacity and addressing a number of social ills including under-employment. More fundamentally, not just Western European or American societies practice the type of capitalism that the Pope critiques, but the most influential emerging markets in the world have seen their own poverty rates dramatically decline and their middle classes significantly expand. These nations—including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Poland—are unlikely to dramatically change an economic system where they have emerged as principal beneficiaries.
Third, while religion continues to represent an important element in the lives of many citizens, its voice is not unified across the world’s major faith groups. Even within the Catholic church’s one billion parishioners, climate change and capitalism do not presently register as top tier matters of concern. The increased secularization of society in many parts of the word has also led people to become less deferential to any voice of authority, spiritual, governmental or otherwise.
Joseph Stalin once inquired about how many military divisions the Pope had in order to challenge the doctrine of Communism. In the case of Pope John Paul II, it turned out that he had many more spiritual divisions than the Soviet Union could muster in Poland and other Eastern European nations. While climate change and capitalism certainly possess moral dimensions, they are not perceived in those terms by most citizens, business executives or policymakers—at least not presently. There is also the question of how much energy, time and ability Pope Francis will be able to mobilize to pursue the Laudato Si agenda given the many other challenges he faces even as he acknowledges that his own tenure may be limited.
Pope Francis has delivered a unique and challenging critique in his Encyclical, one that may gain greater resonance in the future. In the meantime, both climate deniers and sustainability proponents should calm themselves and refrain from thinking that lightning will strike their adversaries or move the masses.
6 July 2015