Pope Francis Goes Green, Balancing Science and Religion 1/2
With the Pope issuing an encyclical to address the climate change crisis, Janet Redman and Blase Bonpane weigh in on this defining moment for the Catholic Church
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Pope Francis in a 192-page encyclical, which is a papal letter sent to bishops, warned us of unprecedented destruction of ecosystems and serious consequences of climate change if countries fail to act decisively. With a particular focus on how climate change is affecting the poor and developing countries, he rejected the idea of market-based solutions of, for example, carbon credits. He says such a plan could give rise to more market speculation and would not help reduce the overall emissions in the air. Emphasizing this point even more, he says carbon market-based solutions to climate change could help support super-consumption in certain countries and sectors.
Well, the Republican base in the U.S. is rather upset with the pope. Of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates, at least five of them are Catholic. So far both Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush have come out against the Pope on climate change. Here is some of what Jeb Bush had to say, and he’s a leading contender for the White House as we speak.
PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE JEB BUSH: I don’t get, I hope I’m not going to get, like, castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or from my Pope. And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm. So I’m a little skeptical about this.
PERIES: We have invited two guests to discuss this issue even more. Joining us from Santa Monica, California is Blase Bonpane. Blase is the director of the Office of the Americas. He served as a Maryknoll priest in Guatemala and has written five books, including Guerrillas of Peace: Liberation Theology and the Central American Revolution. Joining us from Washington, DC is Janet Redman. Janet is the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Janet, Blase, thank you for joining us today.
JANET REDMAN, DIRECTOR OF CLIMATE POLICY PROGRAM, IPS: Thank you very much for having us on.
BLASE BONPANE, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF THE AMERICAS: It’s good to be here, Sharmini.
PERIES: So let me start with you, Blase. Give us a take on what the [paper] actually had to say and your initial thoughts on it.
BONPANE: He is speaking about our common home, this tiny little speck of sand in the universe called planet earth. And he would like to save it by seeing a practice of distributive justice, for one thing. Distributive justice has been discussed for centuries, from Aristotle to the present, and that is to have some balance in life you have to have something of an equal distribution of goods. Not that everyone is the same, but at least to have some balance. At this time there is no balance. One percent and less have the majority of the wealth and power, and the planet does not work that way.
And the important thing is that war, the military of the world at peace are the greatest threat to the environment. The military of the world at war, and this tiny planet, and its air and its water are not sustainable with war. So the corollary from this encyclical is that we must end war. We must abolish war, or we will not have anyone living here. Some people are worried about overpopulation, so called. I’m worried about no population. And I think the pope is worried about that.
And I believe that Jeb Bush will be listening to his father and to his brother. I think he might learn more by listening to what Pope Francis has to say, because Pope Francis has taken council with some of the best scientific sources on the globe. So this is an important moment for all of us to read, to understand, and to realize that his message is not sectarian. It’s non-sectarian. It’s a message for nonbelievers, for atheists, for members of any other sect. So it’s worth reading, as many other documents have been.
PERIES: Janet, your take?
REDMAN: Yeah, I would agree with everything that Blase has mentioned. I’m particularly perplexed by Jeb Bush’s statement saying that he may consider or may not consider the Pope’s words and that the Pope’s job is making us better as a people, not meddling in the political realm. I think in fact the political realm exists, government exists, policy exists to make us better as a people, as a society, in interaction with each other.
And I think the Pope did an incredible job in this encyclical of bringing together the moral compass for all to think about how we interact with each other and how we interact with our planet. That interaction, that relationship is actually what we call economy. Economy is really the management of home. So this encyclical that talks about caring for our common home is speaking to the economy specifically. And that’s what he does that I think is most interesting in this encyclical.
Two or three pieces that I picked up that really moved me in particular, one was of course the Pope speaking about how climate change impacts the poor first and worst. Many people have noticed this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has mentioned it. A number of NGOs and civil society and social movements who are poor themselves, are representing the poor, are working with the poor, have said for a long time the most politically and economically marginalized populations among us will feel the brunt of climate change.
But I think what the Pope does that’s incredibly interesting is he flips that on its head as well and says actually, inequality also drives climate change. So he’s not just looking at poverty, he’s looking at the gap between the poor and the ultra-rich. He actually calls out the elites and says those people with political and economic power need to stop masking the symptoms of climate change to make us not–to not solve the problem. To make us think the problem is not as systemic as it is.
So he actually calls us to confront the fact that our economy, which right now is built on fossil fuels, which right now has meant that those of us in the developed world have been able to have had the hospitals, the roads, the schools, the infrastructure because we developed on cheap fossil fuel, which meant we’ve actually taken resources out of the hands of our brothers and sisters in the global South. We need to confront the inequality. We need to confront that climate debt. And he calls on us to make a new economy, functionally. He’s saying we need an economy that does not degrade the planet. We need an economy that ensures there aren’t these imbalances in wealth and power. And as Blase says, we need an economy that’s a peace economy and is based on disarmament.
So that’s a, that’s an incredibly radical message. I think just one last point, you mentioned in the introduction about not falling back on market mechanisms to solve this problem. He’s very clear, he says people who are obsessed with technology fixes, with market mechanisms, he kind of lumps them in the same boat with climate deniers and people who are fairly apathetic. He’s not blaming anyone, he’s not saying there’s one course. But he’s also saying very clearly we need to take responsibility for our actions.
It’s going to mean we don’t have an easy fix. There isn’t–there actually is an easy fix. We just stop doing fossil–we stop burning, digging, burning and dumping fossil fuels and degrading our landscapes through crazy agribusiness, agricultural technologies that don’t [meet] our landscapes. But he says very clearly it’s about building that relationship and taking responsibility. I think it’s actually revolutionary that he is very clearly saying we can’t outsource solving climate change to Wall Street. And that’s something that even the environment community has been very reticent to say out loud.
PERIES: Blase, [papo] was very revolutionary here in terms of linking science to religion and a new course we have to take in terms of following our religion that takes into account science. I thought this was remarkable. Your thoughts on that?
BONPANE: Well yes, Sharmini. The thrust was the preferential option for the poor. This was directed to the problems of the poor. That alone would be a revolutionary change, because our focus generally has been on the rich and the famous, and their needs of the less than one percent. As we look at the preferential option for the poor we would see a complete change in church and state. Suppose the Congress said, well, our agenda today is to talk first of all about the homeless, and then about those who fall through the cracks in medical care. We would have a different country and a different world.
So this is critical. And it came from what is called liberation theology. I don’t want to say that the Pope accepts everything in terms of where liberation theology is going. It is going in a direction that is very anti-sectarian and is very humanistic, and is really very much against any kind of authoritarianism or top-down imperial theology, because that’s what liberation theology was doing. It was turning on imperial theology.
However, be that as it may, he clearly agrees with the decision that came up in [inaud.] in 1968 when Pope Paul gave his encyclical Populorum Progressivo, where he made it clear that people have a right to rebel. And we’d love to see that humanistic revolution, that moral revolution, that Dr. King spoke about taking place. And it will take place if people understand the critical nature of looking at the majority of the people on earth, the vast majority, who are poor and to deal with their needs rather than to have this superabundance for those who don’t need it. Just 500 billionaires have more than the poor of the earth, and that cannot be sustainable.
So we’re very proud of what he has done. We would not like to say that he is going with the flow of liberation theology in 2015. That’s really entirely up to him. We respect him very much for what he has done and what he is doing, and we feel that this letter will have an international impact that no party, no political party, can denounce, really, with success.
PERIES: Blase, I know the Pope is serious–in fact, I know people that he called on to consult with about this issue. For example, João Pedro Stédile at MST in Brazil was called to come and meet with him, along with several other specialists on the environment. He has thought and consulted deeply on this issue. However, one issue that is unaddressed as far as I know in the letter is whether the church itself is willing to divest from fossil fuels, and whether this letter addresses that particular issue, to me that seems a contradiction.
BONPANE: Well, I think that is implied there. He may not say that directly, but certainly he makes it clear that fossil fuels and the future of this planet are not sustainable. And maybe he didn’t address each and every issue. I would never want to argue from a state of perfectionism, or even from a state of infallibility, really. It isn’t to get into that. It is to say that this is opening a door for the people of the earth to realize that this planet is in severe danger, and that our spirituality must be joined to nature. The importance of that, certainly St. Francis understood that, and that’s why he took the name Francis, to follow St. Francis of Assisi who had such a clear communion with nature. We have to build that communion instead of destroying nature. We have to foster the growth of the flora and fauna and the human beings that happen to live here.
So I won’t give the Pope a grade for perfectionism, which is really never there in any of us. But I will give him high praise for what he has said, and for the billions of people.
PERIES: Janet, your thoughts on how we might implement and address the issues that the Pope has raised?
REDMAN: Sure. Just to pick up on a piece that Blase is speaking about, I think it’s certainly interesting to think about how the Vatican will hopefully someday specifically articulate that they will be divesting their wealth from the fossil fuel industry. The Pope does talk about, again, a transition away from fossil fuels, away from oil and coal. And he says even natural gas, which many environmentalists, many folks in the development community who care deeply about the fate of the poor have talked about as being a cheap gas that’s less polluting, and so a bridge fuel to a new economy.
I thought what was incredibly powerful about what the Pope says is it puts to–it doesn’t put to rest, but it helps give us a starting point for a controversy we’ve been seeing in our conversation around energy access as a means of alleviating poverty or eradicating poverty, particularly on the African continent. Where we have development groups on the one hand saying, we represent the voice of the poor. We need cheap energy access. If that means fossil fuels, so be it. Then we’ve got other folks on the other hand saying we care about the environment and we care about making sure we’re moving away from fossil fuels. In fact, the worse climate change is the more the poor are impacted. And there’s been this kind of debate back and forth about do we need cheap fuel now so we can continue to develop? Do we need to move away from fossil fuels so we can make sure that people aren’t impacted by climate change?
And I think what the Pope does that’s incredibly powerful is bring those communities together to say we do need to transition off of these fossil fuels. Even if they’re cheap, their impacts are harming the poor, but they’re harming the planet and that harms all of us together as a global community, as humanity.
So I think some of the policies that could help move that conversation forward are specifically directed at the fossil fuel industry. There are three that come to mind right away. Of course one is divestment. That’s more of a social movement at this point where institutions, both private and public, and individuals can pull their money out of the fossil fuel industry and then invest that money in renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency in the kinds of profit, nonprofit strategies that the poor are asking for. So some of it’s entrepreneurial, but a lot of it is actually grants, donations, support for the kinds of adaptation that’s necessary in the global South.
Another incredibly easy first step is just to stop propping up the fossil fuel industry with our public tax dollars. We can just stop shoveling money toward them, say no more, we’re not giving you a public handout anymore, and cut the almost $550 billion in subsidies that the fossil fuel industry, one of the wealthiest sectors of our economy, enjoys every year around the world.
And then I think a third is we can think about carbon taxes and other kinds of mechanisms that, along with regulation at the source to stop pollution, to make sure that people living around those sources are not breathing in the [coal] pollutants, are not suffering the health effects of fossil fuel combustion. But also putting a price on carbon in the sense that putting a disincentive on pollution, and making sure that that revenue that’s collected is then distributed toward collective goods, toward the public need.
So that’s one, I think, a couple places to start right at the level of fossil fuel. There are many things he talked about in the encyclical, including food systems. How to ensure that we’re not poisoning our earth by dumping fertilizers and pesticides, other poisons on our food, as a way of growing the pie. In fact it’s not about growing the pie, it’s about dividing the pie up in a fair way, which I think Blase talked about in terms of redistributive justice.
So those are some policies I think, in the agricultural world, in the energy world. And then of course I think in the financial sector. And he speaks a lot about the role of those who are most economically powerful. That certainly means the one percent of people, but I think it also means those corporations and particularly the banks that have been rigging the rules, to be perfectly frank, in the United States and certainly globally to set an economy that meets their interests, that lines their pockets.
So there are a lot, a number of different ways via regulation that we can damper down the power of the banks. One that we’ve been talking about for a while that you mentioned, Sharmini, is a financial transactions tax that takes, ups the cost of high-frequency trading, takes a little bit of the power out of Wall Street firms and actually puts money back into the tax base so we can spend it on the public goods, like climate change, like adaptation, like poverty alleviation, that we need here in the United States, but that we also need to be contributing to globally, as is our legal and moral obligation.
PERIES: We’re going to continue this discussion in our green room, as Jon Stewart says. To continue the discussion on what the Pope had said in his letter to the bishops, and also a particular angle on how war impacts carbon emissions and climate change. Thank you for joining us.
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