What Can Non-Catholics and Nonbelievers Learn From the Pope’s Encyclical About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change?

climate change moralpopeslaudato

I. Introduction

Can non-Catholics and nonbelievers learn anything from the Pope’s encyclical on climate change? Although, of course, the Pope holds positions on some issues that many non-Catholics and nonbelievers do not agree with, are there insights about climate change ethics that non-Catholics and even nonbelievers can learn from the Pope’s recent encyclical Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home?

This encyclical has gotten wide publicity largely because of its message that we have a moral responsibility to prevent climate change. Yet this 184 page document is about much more than climate change.

Although this entry will focus mostly on climate issues, it is important to understand that the encyclical calls for deep moral reflection on and response to many problems threatening the common good including poverty, staggering economic inequality, homelessness, lack of meaningful work, diminishing water supplies, loss of global biodiversity, as well as climate change. Furthermore, the encyclical argues that there is a common cause of these problems, namely a global economic system which produces wealth, an outcome which the encyclical acknowledges is a good thing, while destroying planetary common natural resources and failing to produce social and institutional structures necessary to achieve basic human dignity.

The encyclical contains a strong critique of the current form of capitalism. It is not, however, as claimed by many on the political right, a call for centralized government control of the economy but a call for a more regulated economy and economic investment in things needed to assure that all human beings can live in basic dignity. The encyclical makes a strong argument that government policies that call for strong economic growth alone will not protect the environment nor provide institutional mechanisms needed to assure social justice and human dignity.

The encyclical states that the environmental crisis facing the world is related to the social crises present throughout the world. More specifically the encyclical says:

We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature. (Laudato Si, 139)

Throughout the document, the encyclical grounds its moral conclusions in Catholic theology but also widely appeals to the Golden Rule which is recognized in one form or another by all of the world’s religions and is a major tenet of much of the most universally recognized foundations for secular ethics. Thus the encyclical is a call to protect our common home not just to Catholics but to all of the people in the world. Its ethical logic is supportable both by Catholic theology and mainstream secular ethics.

Most of the encyclical’s analyses of what needs to be done to solve the environmental and social crises facing the world is based on the need to protect the common good, a duty derivable from the Golden Rule, which the encyclical expressly recognizes as a foundational theory of social ethics. In this regard the encyclical says:

Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. (Laudato Si, 156). Because current injustices, the common good requires solidarity with and a preferential option for the poor(Laudato Si,  89) The notion of the common good also extends to future generations.(Laudato Si, 159)

The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. (Laudato Si, 93).

II. The Practical Importance of Seeing Climate Change as a Moral Problem

The encyclical has received most attention for its claims about the moral responsibility to prevent climate change.  For reasons discussed on this website many times, if the Pope’s encyclical is successful in getting civil society to see climate change as essentially a moral and ethical issue, it is likely to have a profound practical importance for climate change policy making, in fact, it could radically transform how climate change policy has been debated for over 35 years. There are two reasons for this.

One, climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral issue. In fact, climate change policy makers can’t think clearly about policy until they respond to several ethical questions.

Second, those who have opposed action on climate change for over 35 years have tricked citizens, including most members of environmental organizations, to argue about climate change policies in ways that ignore moral and ethical questions and in so doing have weakened the strongest arguments that can be made in response to arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

The features of climate change that scream for attention to see climate change policy options through a moral lens include:

(1) It is a problem caused by high-emitting nations and people who are putting the world’s poorest nations and people at most risk who have done little to cause the problem;
(2) The harms to those most vulnerable are likely to be catastrophic including: deaths, sickness, destruction of ecological systems on which life depends and entire countries, and the numerous other harsh impacts caused by rising seas, more intense storms, heat waves, killer droughts, and floods, loss of glaciers that millions of people depend upon for drinking and agriculture, while the harshest impacts are most threatening to Africa, particularly the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa, to Southeast Asia from loss of water supply, drought, and rising seas, and to Small Island states whose very existence is now threatened by rising oceans and killer storms;
(3) Unlike other environmental problems those most vulnerable to climate change often are unable do anything to protect themselves, their best hope is that the high emitting nations and people will see that they not only have economic interests but have ethical responsibilities to stop doing what they are doing; and,
(4) Most importantly, there is almost no hope of preventing very dangerous climate change unless all nations urgently limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

To understand the link between urgency and fairness, one must understand aspects of climate science.

The Earth’s climate will not respond to increased atmospheric concentrations of ghg by raising temperatures in proportion to how much ghg are added to the atmosphere. That is, the earth’s climate system does not respond to increased atmospheric concentrations of ghgs in the same way the sound on a radio turns up in proportion to how the volume dial is turned up. The climate system is known to have threshold switches in addition to dials which will cause global temperatures to escalate abruptly if certain thresholds are exceeded. For instance, we know about 50 million years ago ocean temperatures passed a threshold which quickly released large amounts of methane hydrates stored in the bottom of the ocean which then caused global temperatures to rapidly increase abruptly by 5 degrees C.

Because the scientific community believes that the probability increases significantly that the switches in the climate system which will cause abrupt climate change will be triggered if warming is allowed to increase by 2 degrees C or perhaps 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial temperature levels, every country in the world agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 to try and keep warming from rising more than 2 degrees C.

Because high emitting countries in particular have allowed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to rise to 400 ppm from the preindustrial level of 280 ppm and at 450 ppm there is only approximately a 50 % chance of limiting the warming to 2 degrees C, the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. In fact, if the international community wants to have a reasonable probability of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, the entire world must limit all ghg to approximately 350 GtC and given that the world is now emitting 10 GtC per year, even if the international community could stabilize current ghg emissions at existing levels, in about 30 years any additional emissions of ghg would exceed a carbon budget that may not be exceeded to give a reasonable chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Given this, the mainstream scientific community is screaming to the world that the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

Even more disturbing some of the climate triggers that cause abrupt changes are now starting to be visible, including Arctic sea ice disintegration and methane release from the Asian tundra.

Because of all of this, the most contentious issues in international climate negotiations are issues about what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Given that some nations more than others have much higher per capita emissions and historical emissions and if all nations must reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, some nations more than others must reduce their emissions much faster than others.

At the top of the list of countries that justice would require a country to go much, much faster in reducing ghg emissions than most any other country is the United States. Although China now emits more ghg than the US, the US is much more responsible than China for elevating atmospheric concentrations to the current dangerous levels of 400 ppm CO2 because of its world-leading historical emissions and US per capita emissions are almost twice China’s emissions

For this reason issues of justice and fairness are at this moment the most contentious issues in international climate change negotiations not only in regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions but who should pay for urgently needed adaptation measures in poor developing nations.

And so a nation cannot think clearly about what its climate policy goal should be without considering two ethical questions.

The first is what is the atmospheric ghg concentration that a nation’s climate policy is seeking to achieve, such as 450 ppm CO2. This is a moral issue at its core because it is a position on who the country believes it is OK to kill and what damages to ecological systems on which life depends are acceptable.

The second ethical issue that a nation must confront in setting national policy is what is the nation’s fair share of a safe global carbon budget for the entire world.

For these reasons, climate change policy makers must take positions on profound ethical and justice issues in setting climate policy, issues that governments can’t duck when determining national climate change policy because every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on these ethical questions.

However, perhaps an even more important reason why seeing climate change as essentially a moral issue is so practically important for policy stems from the success of fossil fuel companies and other opponents of climate change policies to frame climate policy debates over the last 35 years so that the debates have almost exclusively focused on three issues that have ignored the moral issues .

In the United States, opponents of climate change policies have argued that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because:

First, the policies will impose unacceptable costs on the US economy or destroy jobs, or other economic reasons to oppose climate policies

Second, there is scientific uncertainty about whether humans are causing climate change and what the impacts will be

Third, for the US to act would be unfair or ineffective until China and India do so.

US citizens and environmental groups have unknowingly been tricked into responding to these arguments by making factual responses to these claims, such as climate change policies will increase jobs, despite the fact that each of these arguments contain hidden assumptions which clearly flunk minimum ethical scrutiny.

For example, as we have seen, opponents of climate change policies have frequently based their opposition to climate policies on the claim that climate change policies will destroy US jobs or the US economy.

The response of NGOs and citizens to this argument has largely been to assert that climate change policies will create jobs and boost the economy. Yet this response unknowingly implicitly supports the very dubious hidden normative assumption of the climate policy opponents’ argument, namely that the US should not adopt climate policies if the policies will hurt the US economic interests despite the fact that this argument is obviously wrong when viewed through an ethical lens because polluters not only have economic interests, they more importantly have moral responsibilities to not harm others.

As we have seen, almost all cultures agree with the Golden Rule which holds that someone should not be able to kill others because it would be costly to the killer to stop the killing behavior. Thus, the failure to respond to the opponents’ of climate change policies arguments on moral grounds is an astonishing oversight in light of the fact that the moral objection is very strong  to someone who claims that they can seriously harm others if their economic interests are threatened if they have to limit their harmful activities.

Such a claim violates the most non-controversial ethical rules including the Golden Rule and many well accepted provisions of international law based on the Golden Rule such as a rule called the “no harm principle” which asserts that all nations have a legal duty to prevent their citizens from harming people outside their jurisdiction.

If citizens who support climate policies ignore the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies on the grounds that climate policies will impose costs on those who are harming others, they are playing into the hands of those responsible for putting the planet at risk from climate change.

There are also deeply problematic ethical assumptions that have remained largely unchallenged when the opponents of climate change policies argue the US should not adopt climate change policies due to scientific uncertainty (See, The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty) and unfairness or ineffectiveness of US ghg reductions if the US acts and China and India don’t act.(See May Any Nation Such as the United States or China Make Its Willingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions Contingent On What Other Nations Do?)

And so, for 30 years, the opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in framing the climate debate in a way that ignores obvious ethical and moral problems,  Surprisingly both environmental organizations and the US press have failed to bring attention to the obvious moral problems with the arguments made by opponents of US climate change policies

For this reason, the Pope’s claim that climate change must be understood as a moral problem has the potential to change the climate debate in the US although to give the Pope’s message power citizens must work to turn up the volume on the obvious ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

Now the Pope’s encyclical claims that the failure of citizens to acknowledge moral obligations entailed by climate change to be a symptom of a larger problem, namely the dominance of an aggressive form of capitalism which is undermining the common good in other ways.

Opposition to climate change policies has been organized by corporations and free market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks who share an ideology that if every person works in his or her own self interest, the market will achieve the common good by virtue of the invisible hand. This is so despite the fact that even mainstream economists admit that markets will not internalize externalities, that is, take into account harms to those who do not participate in market transactions, nor produce distributive justice.

Market rationality also translates all values into commodity values which crowd out other values including respect for life while not acknowledging the need to set limits on human behavior consistent with limits of natural resources.

The aggressive economic capitalism that is now dominating most of the world is also corrupting democracies by the infusion of money into politics, funding public relations campaigns to manipulate democratic outcomes, placing people with loyalty to those with economic interests into government management positions, and preventing government investment policies needed provide humans with human dignity.

III. Conclusion

If we want to protect the common good, achieve social justice in the world, and avoid catastrophic climate change, we will need people around the world with courage to publicly challenge the assumptions of an unregulated capitalism on moral grounds.  As the Pope has said, public policy that exclusively focuses on increasing economic growth will not protect our common home or achieve social justice.

As we have seen, the Pope’s call to see climate change as essentially as a moral problem has profound practical policy significance, thus Catholics, non-Catholics, and nonbelievers should identify the moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. In fact, when opponents of climate change oppose climate change policies on grounds of costs to those causing climate change, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness or ineffectiveness of national action if China or other nations don’t act, citizens should publicly engage opponents of climate change by asking questions of climate change policy opponents designed to expose the ethical and moral problems with the opponents’ arguments. Some of these questions have been identified on this website. See:

.a. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Unacceptable National Costs?

b. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Scientific Uncertainty?

c. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on the Failure of Other Countries Like China to Act?


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener Commonwealth University Law School