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Pope Francis Is Right on Climate Dangers, Wrong on Policy Options


Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from the University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management blog

By Michael E. Kraft

In June, Pope Francis released a remarkable encyclical on “care for our common home,” the Earth. He called climate change a “global problem with grave implications,” and described our response to date as woefully inadequate. He called for aggressive efforts to reduce reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels and to promote cleaner and renewable sources of energy.

Adding moral dimension to the debate

The pope also offered a broad overview of how human actions are affecting the planet, and particularly the lives of the poorest among us, who are likely to suffer the most from a changing climate and environmental deterioration. His statement comes less than six months before the major international meeting in Paris in December, when the world’s leaders are to draft the next international climate change treaty.

The unique contribution that Pope Francis made to this debate was to add a strong moral dimension to the prevailing scientific and economic discussions of climate change and the environment. He highlighted humanity’s pursuit of continued growth in material consumption at the cost of planetary health and human well-being, which he found to be morally reprehensible.

Where the Pope went wrong

The pope was right to call for a more ethical sustainable development that can meet our economic needs while also protecting the environment. He was wrong, however, to fault reliance on economic incentives as a way to deal with climate change.

Most climate experts favor either a tax on carbon emissions or reliance on a market system for trading carbon permits, with a cap that declines over time. Both mechanisms seek to put a substantial price on carbon emissions as an effective way to change individual and corporate behavior in a market economy.

Pope Francis argues that markets often fail to bring out the best in us, and he is right about that. Yet moral injunctions alone cannot move societies toward a low-carbon future. Markets might just do that. The higher price of carbon-based fuels should discourage their use, promote the search for alternatives, and stimulate energy efficiency and conservation.

Such policies rely on market mechanisms that conservatives applaud, which makes bipartisan cooperation possible. Moreover, the Citizens Climate Lobby and others promote a revenue-neutral carbon tax with no net increase in taxes. Such a policy can be used in conjunction with actions such as setting national renewable energy goals, offering financial incentives for switching to non-carbon energy technologies, and establishing new regulatory standards.

Climate change policy gaining traction in U.S.

As is the case with most public problems, we can agree on the need to do something without necessarily agreeing on which policy alternatives are likely to work best or be cheapest. However, it is imperative to recognize the seriousness of the problem, and Pope Francis’s encyclical did exactly that by endorsing the scientific community’s findings that climate change is both real and hugely important.

In the U.S., the Obama administration is committed to adoption of a strong international treaty at the Paris meeting. Consistent with these goals, it has raised fuel efficiency standards, supported renewable fuels, and moved ahead with EPA’s Clean Power Plan. That plan will lower carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and promote alternative fuels while giving each of the 50 states sufficient time and choice in deciding how to act.

Some states, most notably California, are embracing the challenge of climate change and setting ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions. California is aiming for 50 percent reliance on renewable energy by 2030. It is convinced that this will help, not hurt, its economy. Unfortunately, many other states are doing little to change directions.

Recent surveys show that an overwhelming majority of the American public now supports action on climate change. They agree with Pope Francis. The issue remains low in salience. However, these polls indicate that political leaders can indeed garner public backing for tackling climate change.

Image credit: Flickr/Gaspar Sarrano

Michael E. Kraft is a University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Sustainable Management faculty member and professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the UW-Green Bay. Michael wrote this guest post; the views expressed are his own.

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