Church of England

Bishop of Chester: papal encyclical 'Laudato Si' is "shrill.. naive.. unclear.. unconvincing.. exaggerated scaremongering"


Thank God for The Rt Rev’d Dr Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, and lay Roman Catholic Bernard Donoughue, who, together, have issued the most comprehensive ecumenical rebuttal to Laudato Si, the second encyclical penned by Pope Francis.

The Papal Encyclical – A critical Christian response is published by The Global Warming Policy Foundation, though the authors make clear that: “Our thoughts are offered in a personal capacity, and do not represent GWPF as a whole.” So here we have the cogent thoughts of a senior Anglican bishop on the environment, global warming, market capitalism and global poverty (though it isn’t made clear why the monograph is entitle ‘The Papal Encyclical‘, since there have been more than a hundred of them [in the modern form], and the definite article may be properly apportioned only until Pope Francis issues his next encyclical, after which Laudato Si will simply become another epistle of indefinite object [unless, of course, it becomes so notorious as to go down in history as The papal enclyclical, but that seems most unlikely).

The Forster-Donoughue thesis is measured, intelligent and polite as it interrogates the pontifications and probes the pious platitudes of the encyclical’s unscientific generalisations, ahistorical assertions and economic banality. It is curious that much of the mainstream media goes with the ‘C of E backs Pope in lunacy‘ line (with the typical shallow swipe at the Archbishop of Canterbury), when the climate-change ecstasy of bishops like Nicholas Holtam of Salisbury is more than compensated for by the reasoned and corrective rationale of bishops like Peter Forster of Chester. Consider:

On Poverty

..To imagine that human civilisation could develop with no adverse or competitive impact upon the wider natural world would be a misleading idealism.

To us the encyclical is coloured too much by a hankering for a past world, prior to the Industrial Revolution, which is assumed to have been generally simpler, cleaner, and happier. There is little historical evidence for such a vision, and for most people then life was brief, painful, poor, and even brutal.

..When St Paul wrote ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice’ (Philippians 4 v. 4 ) he was imprisoned and awaiting martyrdom. But that is entirely compatible with an aspiration to improve one’s immediate human lot, whether that be through improving the quality of public infrastructure, or our homes, or seeking to travel in order precisely to enjoy the opportunities that our planet provides. For any chance of fulfilment, all these hopes need economic development, and inasmuch as the developed western world has achieved a much better quality of life and greater life expectancy than earlier generations or other societies, it is largely due to wealth creation and economic success.

When did you last hear a bishop of the Church of England laud the virtues of wealth creation and economic success (doubtless for fear of invoking leitmotifs of Thatcherism)?

On fossil fuels

The discovery of new ways to release the energy stored in fossil fuels was integral to the Industrial Revolution upon which modern western society is based. Let us not forget that fossil fuels are nature’s primary, and very efficient, means of storing the energy of the sun. Burning them has everywhere diverted human beings from burning wood, killing whales and seals, and damming streams: there were therefore genuine environmental benefits to be gained from the switch to fossil fuels. Nature is in most trouble in societies that have not yet made the switch. Steam power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries evolved into the internal combustion engine, a national electricity grid and the central heating of homes.

..Many deaths of older people are caused, or hastened, in winter by ‘fuel poverty’, which is undoubtedly being made worse in the UK by current environmental policies. This is another reason why the availability of cheap energy is of such wide social importance, and why we question the virtue in supporting forms of renewable energy that are inefficient and require huge subsidies, which are levied upon everyone’s electricity bills, including the poorest in our society.

When did you last hear a bishop of the Church of England talk of the virtues of fossil fuels or warn of the dangers of green obsession with ‘renewables’?

On markets

There is a great deal in the encyclical about the evils of ‘the market’, which ‘tends to promote extreme consumerism’.. but it is unclear precisely what alternative the Pope is advocating – presumably not a return to discredited communism, which caused such human misery in the twentieth century.

Markets are, and always have been, the mechanism by which the fruits of human activity and enterprise are established and shared. They need oversight and regulation by wider organs of society, and particularly governments, to avoid the dangers of monopoly, or undue exploitation of human beings and nature alike. Tax policy, planning laws and regulatory bodies are commonly deployed to offer a smoothing effect upon the crude operation of the market. As societies become more complex and inter-related, such regulatory mechanisms tend to grow, amid periodic calls for a countervailing deregulation.

..Markets are the lifeblood of wealth creation, and wealth creation is the necessary, if not sufficient, prerequisite to the lasting alleviation of poverty.

When did you last hear a bishop of the Church of England laud the virtues of the free market (without segueing into deceptive hyperbole like ‘unbridled’ and ‘dog-eat-dog’)?

On science and consensus

..we note that in the encyclical the existence of economic and scientific voices who challenge the current majority position is not acknowledged. In the past such majority views have often proved to be wrong. We believe that the ever more shrill warnings issued by those representing the current majoritarian position reflect the growing criticism of the assumptions and policy assertions of that position.

..There is little doubt that, over the past century or so, there has been a rise in the average global temperature of around 0.8◦C. Whether this has been, or is, ‘disturbing’, is less certain. Agricultural yields for most produce are at an all-time high, as evidenced by recent negative food inflation in the UK, despite the foolish diversion of food crops to make expensive biofuels. Further rises in world temperatures would be likely to have a significant impact upon agriculture, but by no means all of this would necessarily be a matter for concern.

..we would question the description of carbon dioxide as a ‘pollutant’. It is vital to all plant growth, and indeed commercial growers often pump it into greenhouses in order to accelerate growth. The human body is not adversely affected by higher carbon dioxide levels, as is evidenced by submarines, which typically operate with levels about 400% higher than in the atmosphere.

..The fact that those advocating the majoritarian view now refer emotively to a part of our natural atmosphere that is vital to life as a pollutant, and to those who question the majority consensus as ‘deniers’, with unpleasant echoes of Holocaust denial, simply serves to illustrate the underlying fragility of their arguments.

You frequently hear of the odd Church of England bishop who is content to challenge the majoritarian view of the House of Bishops, but it is usually from the liberal wing denouncing the settled view of episcopal orthodoxy, seeking to redefine heresy. But here the Bishop of Chester impugns those who appropriate terms like ‘denier’ (and, by logical extension, ‘-phobe’) to attack their opponents. He is right to point out that those who resort to such are usually devoid of argument.

On adaptation deny (Africa) a wider access to cheap fossil fuels and electricity generated by them will only serve to embed that poverty.

..The billions – tens and even hundreds of billions – of pounds that are in the process of being spent on the very uncertain programme to curtail carbon dioxide emissions, would surely be better spent on assisting communities engage in such processes of adaptation.

When did you last hear a bishop of the Church of England expound the manifestly compassionate ethic that the £billions currently being spent to mitigate climate change would be better spent investing in strategies for human adaptation and the direct alleviation of poverty?

On the precautionary principle

Indirectly acknowledging these scientific uncertainties, the Pope quotes the Rio Declaration of 1992, that:

…where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures.

This is the so-called ‘precautionary principle’, which can easily be invoked to disguise a weak evidential base. The last thing our world needs now is an exaggerated scaremongering. Rather it needs a cool, rational analysis of the evidence, and the risks attached to different courses of action.

..the policies that the encyclical advocates, both directly and by implication, do not constitute a precautionary insurance policy. They represent a huge gamble upon assumptions and predictions concerning possible climate change and its consequences, which are not yet sufficiently confirmed by evidence and observable facts. The encyclical’s attempt to link the ‘green’ campaign to curb climate change with his commendable aim to curb poverty seems to us to be both unconvincing and potentially counterproductive.

..the encyclical makes only a passing and rather negative reference to nuclear energy. All serious estimates of how a substantially decarbonised world economy can be achieved require a substantial contribution from nuclear energy.

One awaits from The Times, Telegraph or BBC a headline something along the lines of ‘CofE challenges papal market/climate/poverty lunacy with a reasoned environmental ethic and rational applied theology’. But that would be far too considered, and, in a soundbite world of media misinformation and crass argumentation, far too thoughtful and long-winded.