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Francis is naïve on climate change

17 July 2015

The Pope’s ideas will not hinder poverty, say Peter Forster and Bernard Donoughue


Green: Pope Francis in Rome last month, when he launched his encyclical

Green: Pope Francis in Rome last month, when he launched his encyclical

THE discussion of climate change occupies less than ten per cent of Pope Francis’s encyclical, but those sections have attracted perhaps 90 per cent of the media attention. This comment, by two trustees of the Global Warming Policy Foundation — one a lay Roman Catholic, one an ordained Anglican — seeks to take forward the arguments of Laudato Si’ (News, Comment, Press, 26 June), and to submit them to a degree of friendly analysis.


WE WOULD like to emphasise that we share the Pope’s deep desire to reduce poverty in our world, and we agree that the costs should fall more on the richer nations, and the rich within nations, than on those who are poor.

Our basic concern is that the environmental, and especially the energy policies advocated in the encyclical are more likely to hinder than to advance this great cause. . .

The discovery of new ways to release the energy stored in fossil fuels was integral to the Industrial Revolution on which modern Western society is based. Let us not forget that fossil fuels are nature’s primary, and very efficient, means of storing the energy of the sun. Burning them has everywhere diverted human beings from burning wood, killing whales and seals, and damming streams: there were therefore genuine environmental benefits to be gained from the switch to fossil fuels.

Nature is in most trouble in societies that have not yet made the switch. Steam power in the 18th and 19th centuries evolved into the internal combustion engine, a national electricity grid, and the central heating of homes. The industrial processes did, and do, produce pollution, but this tends to come under control best in the wealthier societies.

Contemporary pollution is at its worst in the intermediate stages of development in emerging economies, and will best be tackled by allowing those societies to apply their growing wealth to such wider aims. Stopping their growth at this point would be unlikely to produce the results that the Pope desires.

He warns — a little apocalyptically — that “we may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.” This may actually be more likely in a world of stunted economic growth. Many deaths of older people are caused, or hastened, in winter by “fuel poverty”, which is undoubtedly being made worse in the UK by current environmental policies.

This is another reason that the availability of cheap energy is of such wide social importance, and that we question the virtue of supporting forms of renewable energy that are inefficient and require huge subsidies, which are levied upon everyone’s electricity bills, including the poorest in our society.


THERE is a great deal in the encyclical about the evils of “the market”, which “tends to promote extreme consumerism”. This is described as the “logic which underlies present-day culture”, the “mindset of short-term gain and results, which dominates present-day economics and politics”.

There is obviously much that should be heeded in these warnings, but it is unclear precisely what alternative the Pope is advocating — presumably not a return to discredited Communism, which caused such human misery in the 20th century.

Markets are, and always have been, the mechanism by which the fruits of human activity and enterprise are established and shared. They need oversight and regulation by wider organs of society, and particularly governments, to avoid the dangers of monopoly, or undue exploitation of human beings and nature alike.

Tax policy, planning laws, and regulatory bodies are commonly deployed to offer a smoothing effect upon the crude operation of the market. As societies become more complex and interrelated, such regulatory mechanisms tend to grow, amid periodic calls for a countervailing deregulation.

In addition, religious groups and other bodies will appeal to the consciences of individuals to exercise their particular choices for the common good, in a variety of ways, including support for charitable endeavours or personal restraint. At one level, this is the main thrust of the encyclical: a plea for the cultivation of “sound virtues”, which avoid the temptations of excessive consumerism.

In these ways, market forces will be regulated and restrained, and rightly so. The recent crises in the banking industry illustrate the consequences of the failure of such restraints on both corporate and individual greed. In the future, the operation of banks and financial markets will be supervised and regulated much more closely.

But a call for such regulation is quite different from the sort of attack on markets in principle that the Pope’s encyclical could be read as encouraging. Markets are the lifeblood of wealth creation, and wealth creation is the necessary, if not sufficient, prerequisite to the lasting alleviation of poverty.


OVERALL, the encyclical strikes us as well-meaning but somewhat naïve. Its gentle idealism longs for a world in which cats no longer chase mice, a world in which species do not kill and eat each other (most do), a world in which species no longer become extinct, despite the firmly established scientific fact that most of the species that have existed have already become extinct through the normal operation of the evolutionary process.

Much of what he recommends in his “ecological spirituality” — a regular day of rest, an economic market that is our servant and not our master, and a proper recognition of the rootedness of human life in the wider natural world — is valuable and commendable. But to regard economic growth as somehow evil, and fossil fuels as pollutants, will serve only to increase the very poverty that he seeks to reduce.


This is an edited extract from The Papal Encyclical: A critical Christian response (GWPF Briefing 20) by Peter Forster and Bernard Donoughue. The complete text is available at thegwpf.org.

Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester and Lord Donoughue is a Labour peer.

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