The Pope Is The Climate Change Churchill Humanity Desperately Needs

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Pope Francis has just elevated the climate change issue to its rightful place as the transcendent moral issue of our time. And that matters because winning social movements are inevitably won on moral grounds.

Using Churchillian language, the Pope just called B.S. on the do-nothing and do-little crowds. There are many game-changing lines in the Pope’s near-final draft Encyclical statement on climate change that was leaked this week, but I think these are among the most striking:

The catastrophic predictions now can no longer be looked on with contempt and irony. We can leave to future generations too many ruins, deserts and filth.”

I’m told that’s an accurate translation of the original, “Le previsioni catastrofiche ormai non si possono più guardare con disprezzo e ironia. Potremmo lasciare alle prossime generazioni troppe macerie, deserti e sporcizia.”

Slate calls that language “apocalyptic,” but it is just a straightforward reading of the science. And the Vatican’s timing is excellent: Wednesday June 17 is “World Day to Combat Desertification.” The 2015 theme is “attainment of food security for all through sustainable food systems” — and that can’t be done on our current CO2 emissions path, which even the conservative IPCC explains risks “a breakdown of food systems.”

Probably the greatest danger climate change poses by mid-century is the threat that “too many deserts” — Dust-Bowlification — (combined with ocean acidification, extreme weather, and sea level rise) pose to the world’s food supplies, as multiple recent studies confirm:

Future drought

Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) for 2080-2099 with business-as-usual warming. By comparison, during the 1930s Dust Bowl, the PDSI in the Great Plains rarely exceeded -3 (see here). Source: Cook et al. and Climate Progress.

So we are currently on track to make drought and extreme drying the normal condition for the Southwest, Central Plains, the Amazon, southern Europe, and much of the currently inhabited and arable land around the world in the second half of the century — for centuries. Worse, just this week, “two new studies led by UC Irvine using data from NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites show that human consumption is rapidly draining some of its largest groundwater basins.”

No surprise, then, that Pope Francis has spelled out the moral imperative for urgent action. The pope’s first line above goes after the deniers — with their “contempt” for the science — and after the do-little crowd, who treat the whole thing ironically. That’s why both groups have launched such desperate attacks in recent days. If you want to see the most ironically desperate attacks, check out these tweets from the so-called eco-modernists and this USA Today piece from Dr. Do-little himself, Bjorn Lomborg, titled “What Pope Francis should do to really help the poor.”

Seriously, Bjorn Lomborg — who is part of the Koch network and cashing in — is lecturing the pope on how to help the poor. Sorry, Bjorn, the pope just called B.S. on your whole hypocritical shtick.

When I read those words above from Pope Francis, the first thing that struck me is how Churchillian they were — since they went to the essence of 1) how this is now a giant, metastasized problem because we have ignored the warnings for too long, and 2) how “small” the arguments of the disinformers and delayers are.

In words with a strikingly similar message, Winston Churchill on November 12, 1936, denounced those at home and around the world who denied or downplayed a very different — but also very consequential — danger:

“So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent… Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger…. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences…. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now….”

Churchill ultimately became the inspirational leader that rallied Great Britain in its “finest hour.” As JFK said during the ceremony conferring honorary U.S. citizenship on Churchill, “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

The New York Times wants us to “beware casting Pope Francis as a caped climate crusader.” Why? “A powerful moral argument can also be built around the right of poorer countries to get out of poverty using fossil fuels.”

Yes, well, you can build a lot of powerful-sounding moral arguments around all sorts of false choices — but, again, the pope has just called B.S. on that particular false choice. Indeed, he called B.S. on the entire Ponzi scheme that is the global economy today. Our current way of life is unsustainable, and, according to a Times translation, the pope says bluntly: “It has become urgent and compelling to develop policies so that in the coming years the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases is reduced drastically, for instance by replacing fossil fuels and by developing renewable energy sources.”

Precisely. Either we stay below 2°C total warming or the entire world (and especially the world’s poor) faces multiple, irreversible catastrophes. The science could not be clearer on this — nor could the leading climate experts (as detailed in the conclusions to the “structured expert dialogue” from May). Fortunately, we know that we can avoid the worst of the irreparable harms at an astonishingly low net cost while bringing poor countries out of poverty in the only sustainable way possible.

Pope Francis is not some vigilante, like the Caped Crusader. And he does not have a country to command, as Churchill ultimately did. But he does have unique moral authority and an enormous number of followers to mobilize around the transcendent moral issue of our time. That makes him a potential game changer in the way Churchill was.

More to come when the official translation comes out Thursday.

UPDATE JUN 18, 2015 8:27 AM

The final version of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment was released Thursday morning. According to the New York Times, it "almost exactly matched" the leaked version.

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