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The smell of burning paper

26 June 2015

ONE reasonable test of news value is whether something will be remembered 100 years from now. I reckon that if the Pope's encyclical on climate change has been forgotten then, it can only be because he was right, and there is no literate civilisation left.

So it was interesting to see what the papers made of it, compared with such stories as the Greek crisis; or the historic choice confronting this country of who should be the next presenter of Top Gear - a show about the most enjoyable ways to burn fossil fuels.

The leak of a very late draft served its presumed purpose of confusing the coverage of the encyclical itself. The Times decided that the news was all in the leak, and didn't cover the launch at all, though it had two stories on the leaked draft. One was from Reuters; the other, from Tom Kingston, bore the marks of savage cutting. Both gave a paragraph to the objections, or prebuttals, of the American Right.

The Daily Telegraph published two pieces: a shamefully silly rant by Julia Hartley-Brewer: "Belief and blind faith are precisely what the Pope usually demands of his many followers when it comes to deciding pretty much every area of their lives from the cradle to the grave.

"Whether you are a card-carrying eco-alarmist who worries daily about your carbon footprint, or whether you are Jeremy Clarkson, what the Pope has to say about humans tackling climate change as a moral issue is about as relevant as Kim Kardashian's views about the future of the eurozone.

"First, like pretty much all political leaders who put their tuppence worth in on this issue, the Pope knows next to nothing about climate science, which makes his opinion worth as little as mine (which I'm regularly informed by the likes of eco-worriers like George Monbiot is absolutely zilch)."

Obviously we can't expect the woman who wrote this to wrap her head round the idea of actually learning from experts, or even people who know what she's talking about. So, of course, she'll assume that the Pope knows as little as she does. None the less, and tempting fate, I doubt that The Guardian would have published anything quite so crass today.

The second Telegraph piece was by Tim Stanley, who is very clever, as you would need to be to try to sell this encyclical to a Conservative audience. "The science is overwhelmingly on [the Pope's] side: this is actually a profoundly humanist document that is concerned with the impact of environmental decline upon us all, here and now. For Francis, the environment is the originator, sustainer, 'sister', and even final destination of man.

"He quotes Genesis: 'we ourselves are dust of the earth.' Francis wants us to rediscover our God-given relationship with nature - the real us masked by consumerism in the West and poverty in the developing world.

"Likewise, here he is on finance capital: 'The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy.' This focus upon speculation crushes productivity and the ancient art of making things, stripping labour of its dignity."

Then Stanley has to explain that these ideas are not in the least bit Socialist: "Socialism is concerned with materialism - it believes that salvation is found through redistribution of wealth. Christians, by contrast, believe that God should be at the centre of all things. The soul must be cherished." Just don't, anyone, tell him about William Morris.

But beyond the political tightrope walking, this was an honest and enthusiastic attempt to portray the encyclical as something beyond Left and Right; and, judging by the quotes, he had read the whole thing before writing. It should be obvious by now that this is unusual in the trade.

The Guardian published an enthusiastic leader (delayed until after publication), and a still more enthusiastic piece by Giles Fraser: "Pope Francis's eagerly awaited encyclical, Laudato Si', is . . . nothing less than a call to refigure our entire political mindset. . . As such, it means that the Roman Catholic Church is now the foremost critic of capitalism. As the left fades in authority all over the world, the Church has regained its voice."

This isn't really comforting for the Left, any more than Stanley will comfort the Right. I think what Francis is actually offering is a conservative critique of capitalism. There's no convenient pigeonhole for that.

But the best comment came from a German scientist who had helped in the drafting, quoted in the Global Pulse web magazine: "The Poles believe in both the blessings of coal and in the Pope. They are now in a genuine quandary."

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