The Papal Encyclical Laudato Si of this past summer, and the address to Congress by Pope Francis yesterday (the first Pope to ever address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress), prominently featured calls for action on immigration reform (calling himself a "son of immigrants"), poverty, and also climate change. Climate change is often talked about as problem to be solved by policy and economics, but a growing number of people have raised it as a moral imperative. Niskanen Center's Jerry Taylor wrote cogently about it yesterday. I think the world of Jerry, and am privileged to call him my friend, but when it comes to moral authority, the Pope has a higher perch.
The question has remained, however, whether the Pope will move people. On the Niskanen Center blog, David Bailey has argued persuasively that he will not. I disagree. I agree that the Pope inveighs quite heavily against what we have to believe is capitalism, and loses some of his moral authority in doing so. Note that at this point in history, with lingering public anger over the role of the finance industry over the Financial Crisis, wagging a finger at exuberant capitalists seems more credible than it has been in decades (see Republican Senator David Vitter's opposition to the deregulation of derivatives in the last spending bill). I do agree that with a few exceptions in Congress – John Boehner, who wept during his address, one of them – it does indeed seem as if the Pope will fail to move the needle, at least directly and immediately. Former Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum remarked on the Papal Encyclical, "The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we're probably better off leaving science to the scientists…" We might elide the fact that Santorum has waded into climate science himself as a lawyer ("the idea that man, through the production of CO2 … is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd."), lacking the training that Pope Francis had as a chemist, but the point is that politicians seem to believe they have their own moral authority.
But in the longer term, the Pope's calls will have a political effect. Politicians' beliefs are ultimately derived from, in addition to the beliefs of the Koch Brothers, the beliefs of their constituents. I believe that for the 1.2 billion Catholic voters in the world, the Pope's call for action on climate change will have substantial weight. Humans are evolved to take all kinds of action and belief cues from prestigious, high-ranking people within their most important social groups, and the Catholic Church remains an extremely important source of identification for many of the 1.2 billion. Climate change is an economic issue, a policy issue, but it also is a compelling moral issue. Harm imposed on others is both an externality and a moral wrong. Ultimately, the divergence between the Pope and the economists of the world rolling their eyes at his moral call may just be a matter of degree. No credible economist believes that the appropriate price of greenhouse gas emissions is zero. That is inefficient and immoral.
The Pope is not actually the first to invoke faith in support of action on climate change. The Evangelical Environmental Network has long advocated for action on climate change. That organization has recognized the need to pass on a clean environment to future generations. There is no reason for economic and moral compulsions to be rival motivators for action on climate change. On climate change, there really is no tension between economic efficiency and moral imperative.
Pope 1, Economics 1.