Dislikes consumerism.

Photographer: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

The Pope's Tricky Argument on Climate

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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This week, Pope Francis is expected to implore both the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly to take aggressive steps to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. His thinking on this issue is not simple alarm over climate change. It involves an extraordinary combination of passionate environmentalism, concern for the poor, skepticism about economics and apparent hostility to "profits." All this makes for an impressive but occasionally awkward argument. 

QuickTake Pope Francis

In his recent book-length encyclical on the subject, Pope Francis seeks to link three seemingly unrelated problems: environmental degradation, poverty and spiritual emptiness. He wants to "replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing." Time and again, he points to "consumerism" as a major source of the world's problems. 

Human beings are endangering the planet as a result of "a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities," the pope says. Dirty air produces millions of premature deaths. Our "throwaway society" fouls our waters and produces more waste than we can handle. Limiting climate change requires "changes of lifestyle, production and consumption." 

For poor people who are already struggling, Pope Francis shows, a warmer climate will make things far worse. While climate change threatens all nations, developing countries are at special risk, not least because they depend on agriculture, fishing and forestry, all of which are threatened by rising temperatures. In the encyclical, the word "poor" appears 61 times. 

At this point, you might expect that he would explore the difficult trade-offs that leaders of developing nations -- including China, India, and Brazil -- face. They have been working to reduce poverty through rapid economic growth, and that takes more energy, not less. For what they see as moral reasons, these leaders prioritize growth, not reductions in carbon emissions. Can poor nations -- or, for that matter, rich ones -- be expected to bear the costs of significantly scaling back? 

That's mostly an economic question, but Pope Francis seems skeptical about how much economists can help. In the face of environmental risks, he insists that we "reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals." 

Fair enough. But economists don't favor such a magical conception. They believe that the best way to reduce pollution, including greenhouse-gas emissions, is to require people to "internalize" the environmental costs -- for example, through carbon taxes. 

Pope Francis is not enthusiastic about that idea, because it would impose significant costs on poor nations, perpetrating an injustice "under the guise of protecting the environment." 

For similar reasons, he disapproves of buying and selling "carbon credits" -- a system of cap and trade, another idea that economists like. He objects that it wouldn't "allow for the radical change which present circumstances require," and might turn out to be "a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors." 

Instead, the Pope argues, there is an "urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution." Really? If so, how can we get there? 

The great University of Chicago law professor Karl Llewellyn is reported to have said, "Technique without morals is a menace; but morals without technique is a mess." 

At their best, economists are excellent technicians. They tell us how to achieve our preferred goals. And in so doing, they also turn out to be pretty decent moralists.

Lifting people out of poverty is a moral imperative. If economists can help us to find an efficient way to address environmental problems, including climate change, we will minimize adverse effects on growth, which is humanity's best way to reduce poverty and increase employment. Growth is often propelled by "consumerism," which should not be treated as an evil. 

It's true that any carbon tax or system of cap and trade would have to be tailored to national circumstances. A poor nation might not be able to handle a tax as high as one that would work well in France or Germany. 

But pleas for "a bold cultural revolution" are unlikely to persuade leaders of the world's nations -- rich or poor -- to join such an agreement. What's needed is a demonstration that emissions limits really are in the interest of their people.

No one should question the encyclical's extraordinary moral clarity and powerful conviction. But with respect to technique, it's a bit messy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net