Columns Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Laudato Si’ v. the Green New Deal? Hardly.

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

RNS guest opinionator Charles Camosy has devoted his last two columns to arguing that Pope Francis’s approach to climate change is far superior to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s. That’s because, according to him, the pope’s 2015 climate encyclical Laudato Si’ focuses on changing the culture rather than public policy while the congresswoman’s Green New Deal is all about legislation the public doesn’t want.

Neither is the case.

The Green New Deal is not a legislative proposal but a congressional resolution that along with sounding the alarm about climate lays out a wide range of progressive goals, including good jobs, health care, and affordable housing. It is, if anything, more aspirational and less policy specific than Laudato Si’.

The latter devotes a lengthy chapter to climate policy. It declares that fossil fuel (“especially coal but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas”) must be “progressively replaced without delay.” It is no fan of nuclear energy and turns thumbs down on carbon pricing. It assesses the pluses and minuses of international climate accords.

Paragraph 167, for example, applauds the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but does not blame the culture for the failure of its action plan, biodiversity convention, and forest protection principles. Rather, it points to “the lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of non-compliance.” All in all, Laudato Si’ was intended to encourage adoption of the Paris Agreement, which came to fruition a few months after its release.

Camosy has an entirely different approach in mind.

Noting that we have 12 years to get serious about preventing climate disaster, he proposes that we “put failed attempts at policy proposals aside” for a decade and instead just work on changing the culture. “Climate activists, rather than trying to get people elected who will not even vote for their own legislation, should focus instead on empowering institutions and practices that are capable of fostering ecological conversion,” he writes. Then, in the two years before midnight, we might be able to get something like a Green New Deal through.

It’s hard to imagine Pope Francis approving.

Yes, he makes clear that we have a cultural problem when it comes to climate change, including “the omnipresent technocratic paradigm,” “the cult of unlimited human power,” and “the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.” Yes, he sees a need for his co-religionists to experience an ecological conversion to recognize that being “protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

And he acknowledges that we should “not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.”

But that’s a far cry from saying that politics must be set aside until ecological conversions have happened and the culture is changed. To the contrary, the need for political action is a core message of Laudato Si’.

“Because the enforcement of laws is at times inadequate due to corruption, public pressure has to be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action,” he writes. “Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls.”

Camosy’s closing argument may be his worst. Addressing skeptics who don’t believe that ecological conversion can happen in 10 years, he insists:

You underestimate the power of changing hearts to bring about life-changing legislation. In 2004, GOP operatives put anti-same-sex marriage policies on state ballots to draw out voters who were opposed to the practice. By 2014, American culture had transformed so dramatically on gay and lesbian marriage that pushing legislation barring it would have been political suicide.

But what transformed American culture on same-sex marriage after 2004 was not activists withdrawing from politics. It was activists bringing lawsuits and lobbying legislatures and supporting candidates and ginning up referendums. Such that by the time the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell decision in 2015, same-sex marriage had become legal to at least some extent in 38 states.

On climate change nothing has done more to change the conversation and bring the issue to the forefront of public debate than the election of Occasio-Cortez and other climate-minded millennials.

So sure, let us preach the gospel of climate change and effect ecological conversions wherever we can. But always with these words of Laudato Si’ firmly in mind: “Unless citizens control political power—national, regional and municipal—it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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