The Pope, Climate Change, and the Pols

by / Sep. 24, 2015 9am EST

Today at 5pm, climate-change activists in Buffalo will rally on Niagara Square to make the connection that Pope Francis made in his address to Congress this week: the connection between advocating for economic justice and turning the phrase “environmental stewardship” into action.

The Pope’s address comes within a week of a non-revelation revelation—that Exxon, the oil company, has for 30 years funded climate-change denial PR and lobbyists to cover up Exxon’s own scientists’ work that they long ago admitted proved that burning fossil fuels accelerates climate change. 

That’s all politics and messaging. The good news is that real work is underway, too. Just this week, the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago released a very practical white paper—about how to move quickly and economically to green the electrical grid for the 9.73 million people who live in the Chicago metro area.

The white paper explains that there is a “quiet revolution” underway that is accelerating energy efficiency in buildings for power, heating, and lighting (with emphasis on the LEDs of that kind that will be produced in Buffalo), and that the accelerating pace of efficiency in solar panels means that the price of electricity is dropping fast.  

 “The inflection point for solar energy in the hockey stick curve is coming fast,” writes the center’s director, Howard Learner.”2014 was the third consecutive year of more than 50 percent growth in the U.S. residential solar market, and the first year that residential exceeded non-residential installations.”

It’s happening, folks. 

Meanwhile, the political class in Washington—except for the Obama Administration, which just issued a new action plan for cutting power-plant effluent by 32 percent by 15 years from now—froths at the mouth about what the Pope knows about all this stuff.

Pieties about the politically useful pope

The new Vicar of Rome is a Jesuit with an advanced degree in chemistry, and his May 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si” is a very dense, very serious, very scholarly document. Having spent several hours reading it, one well understands why most of us relied on the headlines (“Pope links climate change to social justice,” “Papal encyclical accepts reality of climate change,” etc.). It is tough going, it is a forceful restatement of the Catholic doctrine on the sanctity of life that pro-choice Americans cannot accept, and it is destined to be as meaningful to American politics and policy as was Pope John Paul II’s pro-labor “Centissimus Annus”—honored more in the breach than in practice.. 

But in making a political statement during the early stages of the American presidential election campaign, Pope Francis’s extensive essay about environmental stewardship and the lethal consequences of our economic system is getting tangled up in the news cycle—just as the Exxon story is getting ignored.

Republicans in Congress scheduled their demonstrations against Planned Parenthood to coincide with the Pope’s speech. Republicans want the news to be about the Washington pro-life talk of the premiere international exponent of the ongoing campaign against abortion.

Progressives want the Pope’s presence to amplify the sensible, sane, scientifically-validated and now journalistically exposed true fact that very evil people conspire against what the leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics says is true.

But he has other business in this hemisphere. The Pope will also, just before Columbus Day, be elevating Junipero Serra to sainthood.Serra was the 18th-century Spaniard who organized missions in California. Tens of millions of Spanish-speaking Catholics of Mexico, and Central and South America, people whose ancestry reflects 500 years of European and Native American connection, are happy to attend to the voice of the Pope from Argentina. Some descendants of the missionized natives of California remind us that the mission system was a part of the cultural, political, and economic hammering of their ancestors. Yet just as Mohawk-speaking Catholics welcomed the beatification of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Rome two years ago, the man narrative of Serra is of his benificence.

But back to policy-land.

Ugly story, new urgency, but no traction

The demonstrators are correct. Every community needs to take action, pronto. We need to get our own plan underway because the Exxon climate-change denial conspiracy has just been definitively exposed.

An outfit called Inside Climate News just released the first of a three reports that lay out how the largest US oil company has conspired to bury its own 1970s and 1980s research that  demonstrated—to Exxon executives and shareholders—how tightly they all saw the connection between burning Exxon oil and wrecking the atmosphere, accelerating destructive climate change, and specifically, overheating the earth..

The website Daily Kos has run with the story. So has Grist, TruthOut, TheBlaze, and The Weather Network. There was a Frontline documentary on PBS, and Bill McKibben, the founder of climate-change lobby, has publicized this report to his readership at The New Yorker

In other words, educated and prosperous people who already know now know more. Again. 

That’s why the news about green energy in Chicago is so much more important. Chicago—the city which under Rahm Emmanuel has a Climate Change Action Plan—is a corrupt, violent, self-referential, not-so-far-away city that has had the good fortune to be able to leverage some of the intellectual firepower in the area to work on big issues.

If Chicago can do it, so can other Great Lakes cities. We all have old-school regulated monopolies for power-aggregators, and we all have about the same sunlight and wind resources—except Buffalo’s are better. And we will be making the LEDs, the PV panels, and accessing the new Elon Musk battery technology here, right on the banks of the stinking, excrement-filled Buffalo River. And believe it or not, we even have Catholics here, too, among whom, perhaps, are some empowered ones who have troubled themselves to read Pope Francis’s encyclical. If only there were a Rahm Emmanuel here—not the foul-mouthed privatizing union-basher Rahm, but the good Rahm, the one who puts wonks to work creating a green energy plan, a climate-change plan, a clean-water plan…

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.