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Laudato Si and the Australian election



It is now 12 months since Pope Francis issued his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si'. In that document the Pope endorsed what he called the 'very solid scientific consensus' on human induced climate change, identifying the culprit as 'a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels'.

Laudato SiReinforcing his point the Pope argued that 'technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay'.

He warned that 'politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world', stressing that 'Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.'

These were strong words from the leader of the world's one billion plus Catholics.

At the time of its release Catholics were prominent in the then Abbott government. Yet the day after the encyclical appeared I only heard one government minister comment on its contents. Then Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull noted that he had read about half — it was after all a long document — and that he would be taking its concerns into Cabinet.

We heard no more comment from the Abbott government on the matter.

Of course now Turnbull is Prime Minister in the midst of a hard fought election campaign. His current election mantras revolve around 'jobs and growth', border security, and tax cuts for business. His opponent, Bill Shorten is responding with fairness, health, and education.

The elephant in the room, the topic largely missing from conversation, is the needed urgency identified by Francis in dealing with the issue of climate change. Global warming is well down the list of talking points for both major parties.


"It would be naïve to think that the Australian fossil fuel industry has been much more virtuous than their international counterparts."


Of course the issue is not urgent because the Pope said it is. He was seeking to give whatever moral authority he could muster to support the overwhelming scientific consensus that we require strong and binding international measures to address the issue of climate change. But on the Australian political landscape it is barely causing a ripple. This was highlighted by the recent Intergenerational Report commissioned by the NSW government, a report whose projections for the next 40 years failed to take into account the impact of climate change on our society. Its predictions in relation to ongoing royalties for coal implied a 'business as usual' approach belied by the threats posed by global warming.

It seems that our politicians are asleep at the wheel on climate change. As Francis noted, 'There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.' We know internationally that this is the case. Exxon hid the work of its own scientists that confirmed what climate scientists had long been saying: continued fossil fuel usage is unsustainable. They promoted confusion and doubt on climate change by funding fringe positions, making it sound as if the scientific community was divided on the issue. They used their financial resources to buy political influence to stymy effective action.

It would be naïve to think that the Australian fossil fuel industry has been much more virtuous than their international counterparts. The rush to exploit coal seam gas to the detriment of agricultural land is a good example of short term economic interest 'trumping the common good'. The industry enjoys subsidies and assistance to continue exploration when we know it would be a global disaster to burn our known reserves. Their lobbyists have easy access to federal ministers, while the government is seeking to strip environmental groups of their tax-deductibility status. Again in NSW we have seen penalties for environmental protests increased ten-fold, with a corresponding decrease in penalties for mining companies violating their environmental obligations.

Of course our politicians would say they are simply attending to public opinion. The public appears more interested in jobs and economic growth, in education and health than the environment. While it is true that good politicians listen to public opinion, great politicians shape it. For at present it is being shaped by shock-jocks and those in the media seduced by the fossil fuel industry.

In relation to climate change Francis opined, 'Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the 21st century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.' Where are the Australian politicians who can give hope to the coming generation by focusing our attention on this most urgent issue?


Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association. He is a signatory to an open letter from religious leaders 'to those in public office or aspiring to it' regarding global warming and the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Laudato Si, climate change, Australian election



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Existing comments

"... Francis opined, '... the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history'." Certainly a mere opinion, and light years from magisterial authority, let alone the facts. The facts are that the industrialism of the West has enabled more humans to move out of grinding poverty than any other cohort in history. Grinding poverty was the norm for most humans who ever lived, yet in the period from the inception of the industrial revolution, grinding poverty has shrunk from at least 80 percent to about 5 percent, even as population has grown exponentially. That’s “irresponsible”? Well, "Hail 'industrial irresponsibility'!", I say, for the sake of the desperate poor, and shame on those who oppose it, yet claim to stand for the poor! (Does E.S. have a 'preferential option' for the poor? What’s that option, concretely? Cuba? Venezuela? East Germany? North Korea? Great!) P.S. Despite unprecedented human injections of CO2, the earth's temperature hasn't budged significantly in more than 15 years. The models are crashing badly. You can be a good Catholic and oppose Pope Francis on climate change.

HH | 21 June 2016  

thanks Neil. as you said at the IEU conference last year, Laudato Si puts sustainability at the core of the catholic faith. Sadly, we are seeing the opposite at the core of the policies of governments purporting to be christian.

phil | 22 June 2016  

Laudato Si should have damn all to do with the Australian election. "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". If Francis wishes to influence political change he would have plenty to occupy him in the South Americas.

john frawley | 22 June 2016  

John says that "Laudato Si should have damn all to do with the Australian election". Well, in fact the solid science on which it is based is indeed being ignored by the major parties in this election. Anyone concerned about the real risks from climate change has to go to a minor party to hear any real intention to address it.

Colin Apelt | 22 June 2016  

Thanks Neil! Laudato Si does apply to this election. I suggest readers read the Reports on the Climate Council website. I quote from an August, 2015 Report: "The action we take in the next five years will largely determine the severity of climate change and its long-term impact on human societies. While action is building worldwide, Australia is lagging behind. It is in Australia’s national interest to tackle climate change, as a country on the front line of climate change impacts and as one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. There is growing global action to tackle climate change with the rapid uptake of solutions, such as renewable energy, and countries are pledging stronger emissions reduction targets. Australia is out of step with the rest of the developed world in climate action; by any indicator used to measure level of effort, Australia is at or near the bottom of the list of developed countries. A very strong and rapid decarbonisation of the global economy could stabilise the climate system below 2°C, while a business-as-usual scenario could lead to temperature rises of 4°C or above by the end of the century, threatening the viability of modern society".

Grant Allen | 22 June 2016  

Let us not forget the efforts of the Greens in opposing what could have placed Australia at the forefront of action on climate change - courtesy of Christine Milne, Brown's puppet. If Laudato Si or Pope Francis has relevance to this election it should be to urge Australian voters to obliterate the Greens!

john frawley | 22 June 2016  

J.F. .." to God the things that are God's". All things are God's. They can be used to further God's Kingdom, or they can be used to worship false gods, such as Mammon, Power, Pleasure and Fame. Politics can be, and often is used in the same way. Unless we try to promote love of God and universal love of others in our political life, we failing in our personal responsibilities.

Robert Liddy | 22 June 2016  

If your house is falling down and there is risk of injury to people who live there, do you sit around debating whose fault it is or how it happened? Don’t you rather urgently undertake repairs before things get worse? Laudato Si’ is a plea to humanity to make us see that the earth is our common home and in serious disrepair. The ecological crisis, which Pope Francis insists is also a spiritual crisis, is not just about climate change, but also pollution, extraordinary waste, massive loss of biodiversity, the breakdown of society and the large but growing inequality between rich and poor, all of which are verifiable realities. Francis calls us all to “profound interior conversion” so that, in acknowledging that God is the origin of everything created, we truly see and come to love every created thing as the dwelling place of God. If we were able to do that, our hearts would change and we would cherish our earth and all the life within it. And when we do that, political engagement just naturally follows.

Patricia Gemmell | 22 June 2016  

Oh dear, where does one start? So many of the assumptions in this article are just wrong. Firstly, Australia is practically and explicitly committed to the Paris agreements which for the first time have truly got an international consensus around some action. Australia acting alone is pain, especially for the poor, without any worthwhile outcome. Secondly, "renewables" in the way of solar and wind are essentially useless; they merely give the pretence of doing something, but at huge cost. Thirdly, the solution has to based around using hydro, nuclear and the least polluting hydrocarbon ie natural gas or the cleanest possible coal (both of which Australia have in abundance), until there is enough of the others. Poltically-correct wishful thinking is a really poor substitute for reality.

Eugene | 22 June 2016  

John Frawley. The Pope is not talking about what is Caesar's. My proof text is: 'The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it'.

Docrev | 22 June 2016  

As our Cardinal George Pell has said, The Church has been on the wrong side of science before (against Gallileo and the heliocentric solar system) and taking a position on theoretical climate 'science' is fraught with risk.

Gerard Tonks | 22 June 2016  

Sometimes I think I might be living on a different planet to Pope Francis and his fan club on the left. On my planet, in the late nineteenth century, the streets of big cities were clogged with horse manure, and Melbourne was called "Smellbourne" around the Yarra near Richmond, where tanneries chucked their unwanted animal leftovers and chemicals into the river. The air was thick with factory and household smoke. Today, as I've said before, you could safely eat a meal off Burke Street, and last year a pilot whale was happily swimming up the Maribyrnong River near the Aberfeldie sports centre. The same is true of cities across the capitalist West. Humpback whales and great white sharks are pouring into the waters at the mouth of New York's Hudson River while otters weave their way between joggers in inner city Vancouver parks. The only fly in the ointment comes, it seems, from the so-called "greens", who turn a blind eye to the bird and bat slaughtering wind turbines, resist controlled burning in native woodland, which results in infernos, and oppose GM crops, which create pest-resistant strains that lessen the need for chemical pesticides, creating greater insect biodiversity on farms. Nothing in what Pope Francis writes on this subject shows he has the slightest idea of what's really going on.

HH | 22 June 2016  

Robert Liddy and Docrev. The interpretation of scripture has always been difficult and people can take what pleases their argument from it (as we three have done). However, I think Jesus did consider in his statement which I quoted above that some things were indeed Caesar's and different from those which were God's.

john frawley | 23 June 2016  

"Sometimes I think I might be living on a different planet to Pope Francis and his fan club on the left." I think you are right on that one HH. The name of your planet is Ens Rationis.

David Timbs | 23 June 2016  

I see the Global Warming deniers are out in force again, and because of them and the way the fossil fuel industry are using them to muddy the waters on climate science, we're now heading to a 4 degree Celsius plus warmer world by the end of this century. The 55 degree Celsius temperatures recently recorded in India kept the grave-diggers busy! The climate deniers share the blame for this and will also be condemned soundly by their children and grand-children for leaving them a devastated planet, dead coral reefs, a huge mass extinction of species, maga bush-fires, more prolonged droughts, more massive floods, more catastrophic cyclones, and an increase to 50 million climate migrants by 2050. How short-sighted some human beings can be! We fail to heed the warnings of Pope Francis and 97% of the world's climate scientists at our peril. The Biblical warning about following the False God of Mammon is not being heeded by the climate deniers, linked as they are to those making money by devastating Planet Earth, wisely referred to by Pope Francis as, "OUR COMMON HOME".

Grant Allen | 23 June 2016  

G.A., surely you mean 51 degrees celsius in India? And you realize that the previous record in India was 50.56 degrees-- SIXTY years ago? That's a warming of .8 degrees per century - nowhere near 4 degrees you're freaking out about. Why should "denialists" "take the blame" for such a gentle warming, directly in line with the movement out of the Little Ice Age of a couple of centuries back? Here's a tip: trying to argue by threats of reprisals has never impressed me as a convincing strategy.

HH | 23 June 2016  

DT, so you, supplying no empirical evidence whatsoever, accuse me, who has supplied empirical data, of appealing to an ens rationis! Ever considered becoming Pope Francis' speech writer? He's churning your kind of stuff out every day ... maybe he's hiring.

HH | 23 June 2016  

HH, I also wouldn't want to live in the "Smellbourne" described in your message of 22 June. But I'm taken aback that a died-in-the-wool libertarian is thankful for the environmental regulations and restrictions on industry that contributed to cleaner cities across the Western Hemisphere. Surely the libertarians of a century ago would have fought tooth and nail to oppose measures for clean air and water, reduced industrial pollution etc that added to their operating costs. Maybe the Greens today are just seeking continual improvement for a better society, or did something change in the libertarian philosophy since those bad old days? I wonder if libertarians of the 22nd Century will look back on these days when you could eat off Bourke Street with some nostalgia.

Brett | 24 June 2016  

Brett, before we hand out garlands to our wonderful, caring government for ridding us of pollution, some facts: 1. From the outset, government claimed responsibility for the Yarra and for the streets, and the air. Why is the government to be commended for healing a sore it blithely allowed to fester for years? 2. The neglect of the government made a “commons” of both the rivers and the streets. In that situation, everyone has an incentive to exploit the resource, and none to preserve it. (See Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”.) 3. But when resources are privately owned, the owners have considerable incentive to manage them as economically as possible. That’s why you rarely see polluted private golf courses, shopping malls, lakes, streams, etc…or backyards. Disneylands are virtually private towns. There’s never an item of rubbish on the ground there for more than a minute. 4. So, thank God the government eventually changed its mind. But even better would have been a turnover of the rivers and streets to private ownership. See Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty” (online pdf at mises.org) at Chs 11 and 13 for a libertartian take on these issues. I'm libertarian because I care for the environment.

HH | 24 June 2016  

HH, I stand corrected. While I did see one report of 55 degrees in the Indian heat wave, most reports are of a 51 degrees Celsius heat wave. I quote from one report, "A 12-year-old girl died Sunday from the heat in the drought-tricked western state of Maharashtra, according to a separate NDTV report. Yoga Desai had made about 5 trips from her home to the nearest water pump nearly a quarter-mile away before she died. She collapsed on her fifth journey.... So far, the heat wave was responsible for at least 111 deaths through Saturday in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Xinhua reported. A year ago, a heat wave killed some 2,300 people in those two states, Time.com said." As the world is heading for a 4 degree Celsius rise in temperature this century, it will be really catastrophic when temperatures of 55 degrees Celsius are reached. Australian scientists are currently warning that we all need to act very quickly to mitigate climate change, or large parts of the world will become uninhabitable. The climate deniers and the fossil fuel industry are doing humanity no favours in their greed-related quest.

Grant Allen | 24 June 2016  

I get it. Environmental problems are all the fault of governments and the businesses pumping crap into land, see and water were just exploiting resources, as any sensible business would do. No fault with them at all. If it wasn't for libertarians the world would be an environmental nightmare. So thanks for looking after things so well for us. Just one thing. The Greens also work to make the world a better place. So, instead of the automatic anti-Green default position, why not work with them, correct them when they get too enthusiastic, and lead them to a clean, green future. Sounds like the perfect partnership, win-win, not win-lose that other less thoughtful libertarians want. Cheers.

Brett | 24 June 2016  

Well, I could be wrong of course, but I don’t think you do understand, Brett, if it’s all about evil business vs. our white knight governments who ride in to save us. Some facts: ordinary peasants – not “businessmen” – frequently overused the village common. Lots of non-businessmen – private citizens, politicians, etc, – fouled up the Melbourne CBD with their horses. Government abattoirs polluted Melbourne’s rivers alongside private abattoirs. English (government) judges in the early 19th century ruled that noisome air didn’t contravene the common law tort of nuisance, arguing that it was necessary in the name of progress. At many levels, the state and private interests, business or otherwise, are heads of the one hydra. The picture is far more complicated than a dichotomy of “government” versus “business”. Libertarians understand this, which is why they often call out this “crony” capitalism, which might equally be called “crony” statism. A more profound understanding (I submit) is that when goods and resources are privately owned, they tend to be looked after much better than when private ownership is ambiguous or non-existent. If that’s true, why not think outside the box and make everything – including streets and rivers – privately owned? That way, the crony bubble is popped from both sides. Rothbard (op. cit.) explains why.

HH | 28 June 2016  

Grant, how does the tragic death of a girl in the Indian heat wave bolster your case? I'm sure people died when the previous Indian maximum record of a tiny half a degree lower was reached 60 years ago. If the world is going to heat up another 4 degrees this century it had better get a wriggle on: so far almost all the models are way over the current global temperature and have been for more than a decade.

HH | 28 June 2016  

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