The environment - a message of hope, not despair

Philip Booth writing in the Catholic Times on the environment

In his World Peace Day message Pope Benedict spelled out our responsibilities towards the environment. It was a message of hope. It was also a message that imposes responsibilities upon the faithful. At the same time, in accordance with the best of Catholic social teaching from the Vatican, it forcefully defined the environmental problem whilst stressing that it was “important for assessments…to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions.” Despite this, many Christians who make statements about environmental issues seem to make hasty judgements, succumbing to ideological pressure which often emanates from environmental organisations that have views on issues such as population control that should be unacceptable to Catholics.

The Christian message on the environment should be an optimistic one. After all, the earth’s resources are a great blessing. Our message should stress the possibilities of a rightly ordered world, rather than being an apocalyptic message that sees population control and other authoritarian policies as the only way to protect the environment.

But, it is difficult to be optimistic as good news stories on the environment are normally buried. Although, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005, we were told by “experts” how climate change was leading to increased numbers of severe hurricanes, there was no coverage the following year when the low number of hurricanes surprised the same experts. Indeed, if you search the internet, it is far easier to find stories predicting hurricane catastrophes in 2006 than stories describing the actual level of activity during that year’s hurricane season! In 2006/07, in the UK, a winter cold snap prompted a splurge of newspaper articles on how global warming could cause the breakdown of the Gulf Stream and would lead to freezing winters for the UK. But there were few follow-up articles looking at how uneventful and “average” that winter was, taken as a whole.

The news media, environmental campaigners and politicians all have an incentive to highlight bad news. The news media wants to sell papers; environmental campaigners are in the business of trying to achieve political change; and politicians wish to prepare public opinion for higher taxes and more regulation.

The Catholic Church closer to home sometimes jumps on this bandwagon. Our own Bishops’ Conference took an outlandishly pessimistic view of the environment in 2002 – something that I have discussed at length in an earlier Catholic Times article. More depressing still, the diocesan newspaper of Arundel and Brighton, in its lead front page article in February 2008, quoted, uncritically and without qualification, campaigner George Monbiot stating that the capitalist system could not protect the environment and “it had to go”. Such a statement cannot be justified given the evidence, nor can it be justified in terms of Catholic social teaching. Indeed, the appalling environmental performance of Communist countries and other countries that do not have functioning market economies is now a matter of undisputed record. Whilst some Christians may feel that a market economy does not provide all the answers to environmental problems, there is no justification for assuming that an economy without a functioning market system will do so.

Indeed, the best way to approach environmental problems is often rather subtle and undramatic and quite in accordance with the parameters of a free economy as defined in, for example, Centesimus annus. Hasty policy interventions frequently have unfortunate unintended consequences for the environment. For example, the promotion of bio-fuels in place of fossil fuels has led indirectly to the destruction of important areas of forestry as well as to food shortages.

An analysis of the good news can provide policy lessons. Most readers probably assume that deforestation is a worldwide, increasing and intractable problem. It is a problem, but is neither global nor increasing. Recent evidence from the United Nations suggests that the global rate of net deforestation is falling. Nearly all the net loss is now confined to South America and Africa. The US, Europe and Asia are reforesting on balance. Furthermore, there is a very strong correlation between economic growth and reforestation. No nation with an annual GDP per capita of more than $4,600 per annum had net forest loss in 2000-2005. There is a similar pattern with regard to soil erosion.

There are many reasons for the relationship between reforestation and national income. As we become richer we value environmental resources more: if we have a choice between clearing the land for farming and having insufficient food, clearing the land will tend to win: economic growth removes the need for such stark choices. Also, the conditions that promote a healthy economy can also promote a sound environment. Private ownership, charging for the use of environmental resources and the effective promotion of the rule of law allow people to exploit the fruits of environmental resources whilst promoting the virtues of stewardship and conservation and helping to ensure that illegal environmental destruction is prevented.

Air quality is another environmental indicator that has improved dramatically in Western market economies. The US cut average total pollutant emissions by one eighth between 2000 and 2005. This is in itself remarkable as some pollutants had already fallen so far by 2000 that further falls were simply impossible! Lead emissions fell by 98.6% between 1970 and 2000 and sulphur dioxide emissions by about 50%.

A good example of how government meddling in an economy can damage the environment is seen in the markets for oil and water. Much is said about the insatiable demand for these commodities in the developing world. There are real challenges. But huge oil subsidies in countries such as China and India simultaneously damage their economies, promote waste and favour methods of production that use obsolete, dirty technologies. NGOs often campaign against water pricing in under-developed countries, but the absence of water pricing gives incentives to farmers to plant water-hungry crops in dry areas and generally favours the large industrial producer and farmer over the small entrepreneur.

Regarding the big global issue of climate change, whilst the scientific and economic debates continue to rage, there is no reason why Christians should feel obliged to take one side or the other. As the Holy Father has indicated, they should act thoughtfully and prudently. One of the problems frequently associated with climate change is the calamities from adverse weather events. Hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons and the consequent landslides are all said to be increasing and set to increase further. Activists, including Christian charities, point to a particular impact in poor countries. Hundreds of nuns and priests recently marched on Parliament to demand action. But what the alarmists fail to point out is that deaths from adverse weather events are actually falling. This is despite the growth in the world’s population and the fact that, as population expands, people often have to inhabit less safe environments. So why are deaths falling? The reason is because as countries become more prosperous communities can adapt and protect themselves from the effects of adverse events. Once again, the political and economic framework that promotes prosperity also helps provide the conditions that enable people to deal with environmental problems. We should beware of policy action that undermines the basis of a free economy as that will undermine the ability of communities to adapt to climate change which is a continual feature of our planet.

None of this is to suggest that Christians, at a personal level, should be other than prudent in the way they live. Cafod’s motto “Live simply” is a good ideal for Christian living – though perhaps not mainly for the reasons Cafod suggest. But we should not be obsessive and we should not treat environmentalism as a quasi religion. Still less should we assume that any action taken by governments in the name of environmental protection is necessarily justified or beneficial.

see also
Climate Change Policy: Challenging the Activists by Colin Robinson and
Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy by Philip Booth

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