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The pope, U.S. conservatives and the climate of capitalism

If a defense of capitalism is at the heart of climate change denial in the U.S., the trick is to show that the economy may be reformed to the advantage of everyday citizens and the environment.

Conservative American Catholics were not happy when Pope Francis released his recent Encyclical on Climate Change.
REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

Pope Francis has not minced his words about the connections between capitalism and climate change. In emphasizing this link, the pope has highlighted why conservative American Christians are so opposed to mainstream scientific thinking on global warming. While much has been made of the Christian right’s opposition to science on this matter, the real concern is the underlying critique of capitalism.

Conservative American Catholics were not happy when Pope Francis released his recent Encyclical on Climate Change [PDF], accusing him of wading into political debates where religious leaders ought not to venture. In contrast, progressive Catholics, and many in the scientific community, applauded the pope’s statements.

An outcome of under-regulated capitalism

William G. Moseley

While U.S. religious conservatives have long focused on climate change science as the problem, this has been a diversionary tactic of sorts. The real conundrum for conservatives, which Pope Francis highlights, is that this slow moving environmental catastrophe is an outcome of under-regulated capitalism.

In the aforementioned encyclical, the pope critiques “the heedless worship of technology, our addiction to fossil fuels and compulsive consumerism.” He goes on to note that humanity’s “reckless” behavior has pushed the planet to a perilous “breaking point.”

U.S. religious organizations come in all shapes and persuasions and many have supported traditional progressive causes such as the labor movement, civil rights and fair trade. That said, the U.S. business community and the Christian religious right have long had a close relationship. In this case, tycoons fund conservative religious groups who preach a libertarian Christian philosophy justifying wealth accumulation, individualism and small government. If climate change is the Achilles’ heel of capitalism, then the science of this problem has to be attacked on every front.

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Opaque spending on questioning the science

Those invested in the conventional fuel regime, namely businesses related to the fossil fuel industry, stand to make billions if we stick with the status quo. As such, many of these companies have opaquely spent considerable sums of money questioning climate change science. This financing of climate change skepticism is somewhat akin to what U.S. tobacco companies did in decades past to muddy the waters of cancer research, a practice which eventually caught up to them.

Conservative religious and political leaders have also fully participated in the denial of climate change, often suggesting that that the main stream science community is out to undermine the American way of life.

Green critiques of capitalism activate deep seated fears among many Americans about potential loss of livelihood security and independence. These concerns are exploited by some corporate interests, think tanks, politicians and religious leaders by promoting the notion that Americans will lose out in a world attempting to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

If a defense of capitalism is at the heart of climate change denial in the U.S., then the trick is to show that the economy may be reformed to the advantage of everyday citizens and the environment. Pope Francis’ arguments, and those of like-minded religious leaders, are important because they lay out an ethical argument for change. First and foremost, is the need to empathize with the planet and those impacted by climate change. Second is the need to let go of fears of scarcity and to share.

Educators have a role to play

Beyond this ethical argument, educators also have a role to play in this transformation from fear to constructive action. This is a point the Pope also made in his recent trip to Latin America where he called on educators to foster “greater responsibility, in the face of today’s problems, to the needs of the poor, concern for the environment.”

Part of the task is to familiarize students with the basic science of climate change, including the drivers of this problem and the notion of uncertainty in any scientific undertaking.

Second is to help students understand how various areas of the world are impacted differently by climate change. For example, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s fifth Assessment Report predicts that the impacts of climate change will lead to more flooding, famine, drought and disease that could have a negative impact for millions of people in the poorest parts of the world, especially Africa.

Last but not least is the need to help students imagine how the economy could be reconfigured differently for the benefit of all people and the environment. This last task is simultaneously the most challenging and exciting. Students need to know that we could consume differently and not be worse off. With the help of government oversight to factor in the price of environmental destruction, and charge the real cost of fossil fuels, we can develop new modes of transport, housing, recycling and production. There are a lot of jobs to be had in such an economy, and I am confident that the young people of the world will embrace such a challenge.

William G. Moseley is a professor of geography at Macalester College in St. Paul. His latest book is “Understanding World Regional Geography.”

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