Is Climate Change a moral issue? Is the Pope catholic? - RSA

Blog: Is Climate Change a moral issue? Is the Pope catholic?

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  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • Spirituality

Presidents may give speeches, but only Popes give encyclicals. A theological briefing note to 5,000 bishops may sound niche, but it is the vehicle of choice for a direct moral injunction to 1.2 billion Catholics and an indirect political message to all mankind.

Pope Francis’s ‘encircling’ message on Thursday is about what many think of as the environment, but which he evocatively calls creation. His encyclical will be followed by an address to the UN general assembly where he will ask leaders of the world’s main religions to join him in focusing human attention squarely on the UN Paris Climate Conference in November and December, where we need a global legal agreement that is commensurate with the global moral challenge. The Pope’s intervention is important, timely and perhaps even explosive.

The issues raised by climate change are clearly moral in nature because they are about justice and inequality and the prevention of unnecessary human suffering. The deleterious effects of a warming planet are felt most by those who didn’t cause the problem, including developing countries in the global south, poorer communities within countries, and future generations. To be clear, the prospective impacts are not about a few cheeky if somewhat devastating storms, droughts and floods that we can handle with some good emergency services and a stiff upper lip. Unchecked, a warming world is likely to have a progressively negative impact on our food, water and energy supplies, with likely consequences relating to disease, poverty, inequality, immigration and war.

The Pope’s intervention is particularly valuable because while Climate change is moral issue, it doesn’t feel like it is. Azim Shariff and Matthew Nisbett show that for a range of reasons climate change fails to elicit the kinds of moral intuitions that galvanise action; there is no obvious transgression or transgressor to respond to, there is too much of a gap between cause and effect, we are implicated and prefer not to know, there is uncertainty about the where and when of impact, it appears to be a problem for ‘others’, and the way the issue is framed tends to only evoke moral responses in those with a broadly liberal disposition.

The Pope’s role as messenger is therefore crucial, because while most of the world don’t feel that climate change is a moral issue, it’s hard for them or their political leaders to pretend it isn’t about morality when a moral authority makes a point of saying it is. His encyclical is also likely to be helpful in highlighting the broader systemic issues that are driving the climate problem and last year he told a group of social movements: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it”.

The Pope’s message is potentially transformative because strategists often speak of three phases in the development of a campaign and we may need to grasp the moral dimension to get to the final stage. Through raising awareness action starts to look feasible and a minority says: “We can do this”.  As people are converted to the cause, calls for action become more specific and an incipient majority says: “We should do this”. However, distractions and competing commitments create inertia, so it is only when people with power take ownership of the cause and specific actions are timetabled with appropriate conviction, speed and scale that the decisive majority says: “We must do this”.

The climate breakthrough sought is not abstract; it’s about the widespread decarbonisation of economies at dizzying scale and speed with ramifications for jobs, skills, economic growth, trade, existing and future investments, not to mention personal behaviour. The ‘this’ we must do will therefore manifest in the grit, flexibility and nous of particular flesh and blood negotiators, acting with the political capital that, in theory at least, has been given to them by their citizens.

And timing is everything. What makes climate change not merely a wicked problem but a ‘super wicked’ one is that the relatively harmful impact of delayed action is more important than most people realise and more important than most political systems were designed to accommodate. We need a message to focus attention and quicken the pace. Wouldn’t it be great if that message came from a globally respected household name who is a non-partisan and trans-national leader who speaks with singular moral authority, ready and willing to make the cause their own?

El Papa! The Pope’s influence matters because his moral authority moves and persuades critical masses of people, which creates political capital - the freedom and scope to wield power wisely and well. That kind of scope is essential because the resolution of complex trade-offs in Paris will be informed not so much by what is fair – because who’s to say? - but by what is seen to be fair.

Climatology is complex enough, but the global political economy of climate change is maddeningly difficult. Even if the broad direction of travel is clear – systemically reduce emissions by moving away from fossil fuel economies towards renewable energy at scale – the practicalities, costs and timings of getting from A to B involves a range of risks, judgments and decisions that will inevitably create winners and losers, with widespread perceptions of injustice to follow.

The Pope’s role is to mobilise and moralise public opinion over the next five months so that as the world gets to know about the stakes at Paris and takes a keener interest in their governments’ role, their perception of fairness is broader and deeper than it would otherwise be. Negotiators need the widespread acceptance of the collective interest of humanity and of future generations in order to present as geopolitically and inter-generationally fair what might from a less informed and narrower national perspective look unfair.

It still won’t be easy. Those who have been involved in the build up to Paris talks (see Nick Stern discuss the issue at the RSA from 1.09:30) know that even the commitment to the already modest two degree lodestar needs reinforcing. Superpowers like USA, Russia and China will try to avoid the perception of being outmanoeuvred by each other, and the developing world will demand the right for less stringent emission targets to catch up with developed countries. NGOs will compete with multinationals for political influence, and financiers will look on with a keen sense of risk and opportunity. Realpolitik means the global God of economic growth will have to be appeased, while small Island states will literally be fighting for their lives.

But we’re not there yet, and it could yet turn out very well. When the Pope speaks later this week he gives the world permission to look at the problem afresh, with renewed commitment, care, and compassion. Let’s hope that we do.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the author of A New Agenda on Climate Change and The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change. You can follow him @Jonathan_Rowson


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  • An incisive and timely piece from Dr Rowson. I haven't seen the climate change issue so well articulated for some time. The pope's intervention and his appeal to other religious leaders to join him in his campaign will hopefully de-paralyse the decision making processes in Paris. We must live in hope.

  • This is all wonderful and the moral imperative is far from new. What is needed are not more international climate change conferences for the great and good, fewer - however well thought through - declarations of intent, but a concerted change in mind set from a practical level. We need an end to the nimby arguments against regulated fracking, a positive and consistent government policy on energy from waste and an honest and practical approach to meaningful recycling. We also need to ensure that from whichever end of the global warming spectrum we come, we ALL, don't loose sight of the fact that we are no more than caretakers of this planet and none of us are taking sufficient care.

  • Climate change is an everything issue.....moral, existential, scientific.  

    With your intelligence, Jonathan, please carry the conversation further.

    Robin Thompson, FRSA