Where the Papal climate change encyclical gets it wrong

The Pope’s encyclical will, apparently, tomorrow warn that we need to make significant changes if we’re to avoid “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem”.

Despite many reservations about the people who run the Catholic Church, it would be silly of those of us worried about climate change not to welcome Pope Francis’ intervention.

But I think the encyclical makes one important mistake.

According to the leaked draft, the encyclical will say: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of global warming in recent decades is due to … human activities”.

From a communications perspective, raising the question of whether or not climate change is real makes very little sense. By bringing up the question of human contribution, the Pope is drawing attention to and prolonging a debate that shouldn’t exist on the scale it currently does.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly think current warming is principally or entirely due to human activity. There’s no serious doubt about the link – and only very small numbers of people (outside America) think climate change is a hoax.

But some of those who want to stop action on climate change have long sought to fabricate the existence of a debate about whether or not human activity is the cause. By engaging with this debate, even to take one side, the Pope is legitimising it and wasting time that could be spent talking about why it matters.

If we see any headlines along the lines of: “Pope: global warming is real”, he’s scored an own goal. (see update below)

He’s far from alone in this. The first report of the Adaptation Sub-Committee starts, “The overwhelming majority of experts agree that the global climate is changing, and that most of this is caused by human activity”. And the worst culprit is the IPCC, whose Assessment Reports are timed so the lion’s share of the coverage goes to the one that says, essentially, “Scientists still say climate change is real”: the most predictable missed opportunity in climate communications.

By way of comparison, suppose a government white paper outlining a ban on smoking in indoor public places started with a line that scientists indicate lung cancer is often caused by smoking. It would create the false impression of there being a debate (why else would they need to say it?), where there is none (at least, not one that need consume media and public time since the opposing view is so overwhelmed by the evidence). And suppose the coverage ran: “Government: smoking causes cancer”.  We would see it for what it is: a waste of our time.

Update 18/6:  The BBC’s headline, as I warned:

 Telegraph getting in on the action too:


  1. Mark Raven says:

    The main thrust of the article is focussed on tackling the inequalities that underpin climate change etc. I feel that by making such a bold argument for climate justice, the Vatican necessarily had to get into the weeds regarding the science – it is a pretty massive document after all. Are you concerned about the wording in reference to the science?

    • Leo says:

      Hi Mark and thanks for commenting. My view is they shouldn’t have engaged at all with the question of whether human activities are causing current warming. The sole reason they’ve done so is because the myth has been created that the science is still in dispute – not about sensitivity but purely about whether or not humans are causing warming. There’s no sense in spending media time debating this point, just like there isn’t on whether smoking causes cancer, whether gravity exists or whether humans are the product of evolution. All of those have interesting debates within them, but there’s no point debating the basic facts outside a classroom.

      By saying that humans are causing warming, the encyclical has licensed journalists to debate that basic question. If they hadn’t put that in, journalists wouldn’t have had any “is climate change real?” to go on, and so would have had to run a headline about climate change and poverty. In terms of getting into the weeds about the science, they could have simply referred to the IPCC WG1 report – they’re not going to be adding anything new to that, I assume?

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