There is something I have never understood about the argument over global warming.
That argument was, of course, renewed last week with the leaking, and then the official release, of a new papal letter excoriating human mistreatment of “our common home.” In this latest encyclical, Pope Francis calls for a “bold, cultural revolution” to stem the harm done to the planet from warming that is occurring “mainly as a result of human activity.”
He condemns a fixation on technological advance at the cost of the planet’s health – and the “magical” idea that the free market can reverse this damage if corporations and individuals enjoy a sufficient increase in profits. The refusal to accept that Earth’s resources are finite has led, the letter says, to “the planet being squeezed dry at every limit.”
Nor does all humanity suffer the consequences equally. Pope Francis writes that while global warming is disproportionately caused by wealthier nations, its effects are disproportionately borne by poorer ones. He calls upon the world to come together and reach a consensus for change. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” he writes.
In one particularly anguished paragraph, the pope tells us the Earth is our sister and this sister “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of human life.” He calls Earth “among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
It is a powerful and affecting passage – more so, perhaps, if one were to go read it aloud on some shrunken Alaskan ice floe, some cracked California lake bed, some Miami Beach street flooded on a sunny day, some denuded West Virginia deathscape where a mountaintop once lived.
Not that everyone has been moved. To the contrary, the predictable people responded to the papal appeal in the predictable ways. Rush Limbaugh accused the pontiff of Marxism while Sen. James Inhofe advised that, “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we'll stay with ours.” He was echoed by presidential wannabes Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum, the latter advising Pope Francis to “leave science to the scientists.”
So here’s what I don’t get. It seems to me we are dealing with competing worst-case scenarios.
One, pushed by the political right, holds that the imposition of restrictions and regulations to arrest climate change would cripple businesses with needless expenses because climate change is the biggest bust since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault. A blue ribbon panel actually said last year that we face “significant economic risks” from not dealing with the phenomenon, but concede the scenario for argument’s sake: Climate change turns out to be a costly hoax.
That’s not a great outcome, granted. But consider the other worst-case scenario: We do nothing. It turns out the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community was right and we are left scrambling for dwindling resources on a dying planet.
In other words, one “worst-case scenario,” we survive, albeit economically weakened. The other, we do not survive at all.
It’s a moral and intellectual travesty that some of us find the choice between the two so difficult – and a sign of moral and intellectual courage that the pope does not. It isn’t that complicated, after all. We are asked, in effect, to decide between future regrets:
One: We could have saved some money and didn’t.
Two: We could have saved the planet – and failed.
How is that even a debate?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.