An Open Letter to Pope Francis on Climate Change

By Jay Richards Published on April 27, 2015

Pundits left and right seem to think they know what Pope Francis will say on climate change, even before he says it. For months, we’ve been hearing about his forthcoming encyclical on the environment, which is expected to be released this summer.

The speculation has reached a fever pitch in the last week, in the buildup to a major Vatican conference on the subject in Rome this Tuesday. It will include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, American economist Jeffrey Sachs and Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who has contributed to the encyclical. Those inclined to read tea-leaves conclude that the encyclical will claim scientists know with certainty that human beings are causing catastrophic climate change, and promote major UN action and international treaties to control fossil fuel use.

Since I’ve written and commented on this issue over the years, I’ve been fielding questions about the encyclical for months. With the exception of one BBC radio interview, however, I haven’t publicly commented on the document for the obvious reason that it hasn’t been released yet. Yes, there has been intense media speculation about what the pope will say, but it is only that — speculation. The strange thing is that the media is notorious for misrepresenting papal documents that have already been published, and yet many are taking the speculation about this unreleased encyclical as gospel.

The best thing to do, at this point, is for those with expertise to offer suggestions and for everyone to pray that wisdom and truth will prevail. In that spirit, a group of scientists and Christian academics have written an open letter to Pope Francis. The letter, spearheaded by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, has just been released, with endorsement from ninety individuals, including Princeton physicist William Happer, University of Delaware climatologist David Legates, MIT’s Richard Lindzen, meteorologist Roy Spencer and myself.

The letter begins:

April 27, 2015—As world leaders contemplate a climate agreement, many look to you for guidance. We commend you for your care for the earth and God’s children, especially the poor. With this letter we raise some matters of concern that we ask you to consider as you convey that guidance.

Much of the debate over environmental stewardship is rooted in a clash of worldviews, with conflicting doctrines of God, creation, humanity, sin and salvation. Unfortunately, that clash often works its way into the very conclusions of environmental science. Rather than a careful reporting of the best evidence, we get highly speculative and theory-laden conclusions presented as the assured results of science. In the process, science itself is diminished, and many well-meaning moral and religious leaders risk offering solutions based on misleading science. The effect, tragically, is that the very people we seek to help could be harmed instead.

Today many prominent voices call humanity a scourge on our planet, saying that man is the problem, not the solution. Such attitudes too often contaminate their assessment of man’s effects on nature. Naively claiming “the science is settled,” they demand urgent action to protect the planet from catastrophic, human-induced global warming. Attributing allegedly unnatural warming to the use of fossil fuels to obtain energy essential for human flourishing, these voices demand that people surrender their God-given dominium, even if doing so means remaining in or returning to poverty.

Your concern for genuine science and for the poor requires a more cautious approach, one that carefully considers the scientific evidence regarding the real, not merely the theoretical, effects of human action on global climate, and carefully considers energy technology and economics in seeking to protect the poor from harm.

After a brief discussion of the Christian origins of science, the signers of the letter write that “we hope and trust that your guidance to world leaders will build on” seven key points:

  1. Human beings are made the image of God.
  2. Societies overcome poverty through “a combination of moral, social, political, scientific and technological institutions,” which includes access to abundant energy.
  3. “Empirical Evidence Suggests that Fossil Fuel Use Will Not Cause Catastrophic Warming.”
  4. “For the Foreseeable Future, Wind and Solar Energy Cannot Effectively Replace Fossil Fuel and Nuclear Energy.”
  5. “The Poor Would Suffer Most from Attempts to Restrict Affordable Energy Use.”
  6. “Affordable Energy Can Help Millions of the World’s Poor Emerge from Poverty.”
  7. “Rising Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Enhances Plant Growth.”

The letter to Pope Francis concludes with this:

In light of these considerations, we believe it is both unwise and unjust to adopt policies requiring reduced use of fossil fuels for energy. Such policies would condemn hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings to ongoing poverty. We respectfully appeal to you to advise the world’s leaders to reject them.

The letter is worth reading in full. And if you agree, there is a form at the bottom to add your own name to the list.



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