From: Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government; Member of the Board; Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements
Published January 2, 2016 11:26 AM

Is the Pope right on climate change?

Last June, Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, which received tremendous praise from diverse quarters. The same day, Coral Davenport, writing in the New York Times, noted that the papal encyclical "is as much an indictment of the global economic order as it is an argument for the world to confront climate change." Ms. Davenport quoted me (accurately) as saying that elements of the encyclical were unfortunately "out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts around the world." In this column, I will elaborate.

First of all, the Pope is to be commended for taking global climate change seriously, and for drawing more world attention to the issue. There is much about the encyclical that is commendable, but where it drifts into matters of public policy, I fear that it is — unfortunately — not helpful.

The long encyclical ignores the causes of global climate change: it is an externality, an unintended negative consequence of otherwise meritorious activity by producers producing the goods and services people want, and consumers using those goods and services. That is why the problem exists in the first place. There may well be ethical dimensions of the problem, but it is much more than a simple consequence of some immoral actions by corrupt capitalists. The document also ignores the global commons nature of the problem, which is why international cooperation is necessary.

If the causes of the problem are not recognized, it is very difficult — or impossible — to come up with truly meaningful and feasible policy solutions.

So, yes, the problem is indeed caused by a failure of markets, as the Pope might say, or — in the language of economics — a "market failure." But that is precisely why sound economic analysis of the problem is important and can be very helpful. Such analysis points the way to working through the market for solutions, rather than condemning global capitalism per se.

In surprisingly specific and unambiguous language, the encyclical rejects outright "carbon credits" as part of a solution to the problem. It says they "could give rise to a new form of speculation and would not help to reduce the overall emission of polluting gases." The encyclical asserts that such an approach would help "support the super-consumption of certain countries and sectors."

That misleading and fundamentally misguided rhetoric is straight out of the playbook of the small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations.

Pope Franics image via Shutterstock.

Read more at Belfer Center, Harvard.

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