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In his recent message on the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis, citing Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, called climate change a sin, saying:

My brother, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has courageously and prophetically continued to point out our sins against creation. “For human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.”

The basic idea is fine. Wastefully harming the environment is bad stewardship, and Jesus had a lot to say about bad stewards. For example: “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (Matthew 18:34). The bad steward will face dire consequences in the next life, if not in this one. However, labeling environmental degradation and climate change as sins won’t really do much to cure the problem.

Indeed, none of Jesus’s parables are actually about proper environmental care. They are rather about matters of the heart such as forgiveness, or social concerns such as caring for the poor and marginalized. The pope and the patriarch both seem to be aware of this, however, because they tie their environmental concerns to social concerns. “The world’s poor,” said the pope, “though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.”

What seems to be lost on these hierarchs is what to do about the problem. The pope praises the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, but similar statements have not proven effective in combating climate change. What has proven effective? Industrialization and free markets. Really.

In the short run, of course, industrialization is the problem. A quick glance at a global pollution map reveals that newly-industrialized China and India are some of the worst offenders. However, so long as we truly care about the poor, we must not overlook the fact that these countries are where the greatest progress in overcoming poverty has happened since the 1970s. Hundreds of millions of people have escaped crushing poverty through the industrialization and increased liberalization of their economies.

So, are we doomed to choose between the plight of the poor and the plight of the planet? Thankfully, no. As a recent study in the journal Nature on environmental care from 1993-2009 notes, “while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%.” Economic growth is compatible with care for creation. Indeed, they add, “It appears as though the global human economy is increasing its efficiency in the use of land resources when measured in terms of human footprint per person or per dollar gross domestic product.”

The authors continue to say, “Encouragingly, we discover decreases in environmental pressures in the wealthiest countries and those with strong control of corruption.” In particular, “environmentally improving countries are characterized by higher rates of urbanization, human development (a composite measure of health and education) and control of corruption.” To clarify, they also note, “Most encouragingly, these countries are net exporters of agricultural and forestry products, and by this measure are not simply exporting their demand for food and fibre (and the associated local pressures) to other countries.”

The pope and the patriarch consistently miss the reality that the goals and standards that environmentalists want are First World luxuries. That said, there is a way we can make environmental progress: through economic development. We will need to accept the fact that, in the short run, things will need to get a little worse for the environment, as they start to get better for the poor. Each nation must climb an initial “hump” during which it makes more aggressive use of resources, to attain a widespread level of general human well-being. Once that’s attained, significant mass support for environmental protection has emerged in every developed country.

When Your House is on Fire, You Don’t Care About Water Damage

Think of widespread human poverty as a fire in your house. You’d be willing to accept some water damage to put it out. Only then will you start the cleanup. Once people are no longer malnourished, plagued with disease, or unable to own and develop their own property, formerly poor countries will themselves demand more cautious stewardship, and they will now actually have the wealth to do so. It will no longer be a luxury they can’t afford.

So, what is gained from labeling climate change or any other environmental degradation a sin? Spiritually, perhaps people will take more personal responsibility for how they use their resources, or maybe they will repent of any truly wasteful behavior. The pope even commends this, in fact. But as far as addressing the larger problems, this won’t go far.

Economist and theologian Paul Heyne made a similar point about hunger:

If you were concerned about adequate nutrition for everyone, then you would achieve your goal not by labeling it a basic human right but by changing the whole web of incentives that people face. It is an economic problem much more than it is a moral problem.

Despite the way that sounds, Heyne didn’t mean to imply that morality doesn’t matter to economic problems. He was critical of the positive/normative distinction in modern economics, in fact. What he meant, rather, was that impersonal markets have their own internal logic and can’t be forced into the rubric of personal moral conduct.

Following Heyne, if we care about environmental degradation and climate change, labeling them a sin does little to achieve the goal of caring for the environment while also helping the poor. Sins have social effects, but they are ultimately personal and must primarily be addressed on that level.

Now, perhaps all Pope Francis wants is more people coming to confession. If so, then this might help. But if he or the patriarch really want to make a difference to our environmental future without recommending policies that would compound the problems of the poor, they may want to spend a little more time studying economics. Then they might more clearly see the “web of incentives” (such as providing better jobs for their people) that prevent developing nations from meeting stringent environmental standards. For that matter, they might be more merciful in their judgments of those who, while still working to create the wealth they need to overcome poverty and implement the reforms necessary to root out corruption, will inevitably increase environmental damage and global temperatures in the short term.

That, after all, is how every developed country in the world did it. Unless we prefer universal poverty, we should expect developing nations to follow a similar course.

This commentary first appeared at The Stream.


Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He has a Master’s of Theological Studies in historical theology with a concentration in early Church studies from Calvin Theological Seminary. He is also a layman of the Greek Orthodox Church.