Acton Institute Powerblog

Environment Encyclical Is ‘Well Intentioned, Deeply Flawed’

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Samuel Gregg, Acton’s director of research, writes in The American Spectator today about Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical which addresses environmental issues. Gregg says that part of the encyclical’s intent is to add to the global discussion regarding the environment and to the climate change debate. However, Gregg believes that the encyclical, rather than enlightening, is muddying the waters.

To be sure, there is much about today’s global economy that merits criticism. The encyclical rightly underscores the problem of bailing out banks at everyone else’s expense (189). Does anyone doubt that, if the world faces another series of major bank failures, governments will behave in exactly the same way, thereby reinforcing the moral hazard problem that’s at the root of so much of the financial sector’s on-going dysfunctionality? The encyclical also suggests, correctly, that despite the events of 2008, there has been a major failure to reform the world’s financial systems (189). Likewise the pope’s tough words for those who regard population growth as somehow damaging the environment and impeding economic development are spot-on (50).

Nonetheless, many conceptual problems and questionable empirical claims characterize the encyclical’s vision of contemporary economic life. In terms of environmental degradation, Laudato Si’ appears oblivious to the fact that the twentieth century’s worst economically driven pollution occurred as a result of centrally-planned state-industrialization schemes in former Communist nations. Anyone who’s visited Eastern Europe or the former USSR and witnessed the often-devastated landscape will quickly attest to the validity of that insight.

Gregg is very concerned with how the encyclical distorts certain financial realities that affect the environment. Those who support free markets are not monsters willing to plunder the earth at any cost:

It is untrue, for instance, that being in favor of free markets means that you’re necessarily unconcerned for the environment and obsessed with profit. Many free market supporters have devoted their lives to devising ways to align economic incentives in the direction of environmental conservation. Nor is it just to say that free marketers are uninterested in future generations. It has been, for the most part, people who favor free markets who have been arguing that the current recourse to debt by Western governments in order to avoid making hard but necessary fiscal reforms is laying up enormous trouble for future generations. Those of a more-interventionist or Keynesian disposition are generally silent on this subject or don’t think it is a real problem.

Lastly, you could probably count on one hand the number of promoters of free markets who believe that economic freedom alone will assure all-round human flourishing. Take, for instance, Adam Smith. Not everything in Smith’s thought is reconcilable with the Catholic vision of man. But Smith’s vision of commerce and market exchange is rooted in a wider civilizational vision that (a) stresses the need for a strong civil society; (b) acknowledges that there are some things that only governments can do and that there will be times when government economic intervention is needed; and (c) underscores the importance of commercial, classical and, yes, Judeo-Christian virtues prevailing in a society if a free economy is going to flourish and benefit the majority rather than just privileged elites who enjoy close ties to the political class.

Finally, Gregg acknowledges the pope’s deep love for the poor but laments that – in this encyclical at least – the pontiff seems unwilling to engage in serious moral and economic discussions regarding the environment.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Ben Franklin

    There is an easy way to show that free markets work: implement a solution to climate change that utilizes free markets to unleash the creative energy and ideas needed to transition our energy use away from carbon dioxide emitting fossil fuels. AND, this solution already exists. Put a fee on carbon dioxide emissions and return this fee to people in your country. Set the fee low initially, but escalate the fee slowly in a predictable manner to eventually have a very high fee on carbon dioxide emissions. This will work. This will cover all carbon dioxide emissions in a country (as opposed to regulating individual power plants or factories that skip homes and cars and planes…) and this will not hurt the economies of a nation. Economic modeling has been done by and that show that most people in a country implementing this fair well. So, to prove that free markets work, solve this problem which currently exists simply because my purchases of fossil fuels do not account for the REAL cost of my burning the fossil fuels. It is really that simple.

    • jimkraai

      How about a clean nuclear free market solution?

      • Ben Franklin

        Nuclear can be a very important component of our path forward. But I don’t think it should be prescribed – I think it should compete with many great possible parts of our actions – nuclear, wind, solar, energy efficiency, geothermal. Put a price on carbon dioxide emissions and let people, and businesses, and state and local governments all have decisions that they can evaluate.

    • This is exactly the kind of technocratic, fake-market idea that we don’t need.

      True markets grow organically out of free perception of need and voluntary association, they aren’t imposed in a top-down manner by state authority.

      • Ben Franklin

        Paul, there is no “true market” for any fossil fuel. Now that we know that the carbon dioxide emissions impact everyone in the world, and future generations, there is no way to set a market price for the sale of fossil fuels that will be burned. It was F.A. Hayek that noted that there will not be a market solution to smoke or noise from a factory – he was talking about other impacts from the smoke, but this is the same logic. What we need now are for conservative economic voices to find a solution that preserves choice and markets where they work AND addresses the problems caused by our emissions of carbon dioxide. These solutions exist, and it is time for leadership on this issue from conservative voices.

    • Hank

      What you describe assumes that there really is disastrous carbon pollution taking place. I have queried many ENERGY staffers in the US Congress and Senate as well as the Climate Scientist for the NRDC and none could come close to the actual concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Senator Levin’s ENERGY staffer said it was 40%. I advised her that we all died at about 20%. The NRDC climate scientist admitted that she did not know. None were also aware that CO2 has been much higher in the past earth history. The actual concentration currently of CO2 in the atmosphere is much less than one tenth of one percent or a trace gas equal to 0.039%.
      Yes this is 390 molecules in every 1,000,000 molecules. Please contemplate how so few molecules could actually collect and reflect so much energy radiated from the earth back to the earth to affect the green house affect. Use critical thinking and common sense when you hear the changing frequency of vibration theory in so few CO2 molecules. The majority of the green house affect is produced by a much larger green house gas- water vapor (~80%). Only 20 or the 390 molecules are contributed by man the others are natural sources. It has been argued that doubling CO2 in the atmosphere would have negligible affect on global temperatures and could improve crop production so that billions more could be fed. Note that green houses pump in CO2 to reach concentrations of 1000 PPM (parts per million) to stimulate growth.
      Please read both sides and try to be a critical thinker before forming an opinion

      • Ben Franklin

        Hank, glad you appear to understand units better than some legislative aids. That said, I suggest you keep reading a bit more into the science if you want to post replies implying you know what you are talking about. The National Academies of Science from all of the developed countries think climate change is a real issue, as well as most major scientific societies. If you want to learn “what we know”, I suggest the following link from the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) – a rather reputable source:

        • Hank


          Thanks for your dismissive response. I am an expert and give lectures on AGW. Since you don’t challenge any of my facts I assumed that you were a novice impressed by impressive organization titles like the UN IPCC, AAAS and your link which uses the well worn and false claim of scientific consensus.

          From your link:
          “Climate scientists agree: climate change is happening here and now. Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

          Sounds impressive and overwhelming and I suspect that is why President Obama and Secretary Kerry often state it as fact. Neither has any scientific background.

          As a counter to consider I refer you to:

          Isn’t it a coincident that the 97% is a fairly consistent conclusion for these studies. Yep, that’s VERY believable!

          I find the “Doran & Zimmerman (2009)” study very interesting and so flawed that I would compare it to Professor Mann’s “Hockey Stick” chart which omits historic climate events in order to provide a chart that supports AGW and was immorally protected by his peers at the East Anglican Climate center (UN IPCC scientific source) by proven lying emails. This study selected 78 respondents with 76 responding “positively” out of over 10,000 solicitations and over 3000 actually reponding to a simple 2 question poll of “earth scientist” (not climate scientists). Yep, do the division=97% Was that the result they were aiming for?

          There are tens of thousands of scientist that disagree with the UN IPCC on AGW. Look it up.

          The UN IPCC uses simplistic models that rely on flawed terrestrial temperature and sea level monitoring equipment and systems. Satellite monitoring data is available and has been dismissed possibly because it has not supported increasing global temperatures for 18 years.
          Senator Warner stated on Niel Cavuto that the sea level around Norfolk was rising dangerously.
          He failed to inform that Norfolk is sinking because it is built on a swamp. I called his Norfolk office and questioned them and they were not aware that Norfolk is sinking. Look it up! Did the Senator know this or was he just lying for global warming support.

          What nuclear power design do you support? Do you support reopening Yucca Mountain for Nuclear waste (which cost rate payers $20-50B without use) or do you support the 120+ temporary, open air high level nuclear storage sites located around the US within 75 miles of 160 million citizens? Nuclear power is not feasible with the current designs. Are you conversant in any of these designs or in the terrorist dangers of these temporary sites?

          Please try a few books which are available in paperback for under $10:

          “Heaven and Earth” by Prof. Ian Plimer
          “Unstoppable -every 1500 years-Global Warming” by S.Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery

          Please dismount and read the above books and stop pretending that you are the only sage.

      • Guy Hall

        the first half of your note simply indicates we need better science trained staffer in the Congress and NRDC. The small ratio of CO2 to other molecules doesn’t mean small amounts can’t shift big amounts or processes in balance.

        The Skeptics Society and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry were doubtful or uncertain about climate change until a year or two ago. Both are debunker of myths, and have no political agenda but focus on whether assertions can be proven (Evolution, Mind reading, etc.) The mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. They have decided the science behind Climate Change is substantial and is sufficient and compelling enough to ask the general media to call doubters as “Deniers” not “Skeptics”. See

        If you are a long time Republican, such as I am, you may consider this. Even if you are uncertain about the veracity of the conclusions of climate scientists from around the world, there is value in following President Reagan’s guidance: everyone needs a little insurance. In an interview this week with President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz spoke of Reagan’s approach in the mid-80s. “Since we know that the consequences are severe, we’ll take out an insurance policy,” Reagan had told him. “You take out fire insurance on your house. That’s not because you expect your house to burn down. In case it does, you’ve taken out a policy.”

        Read the article here:

        • Hank

          2nd try to post


          I read your article and some of the archived “Factoid” article of
          December 2014. I hope you will read the links and the books which I and have
          referenced in comments here and to Ben and become an informed consumer of AGW

          I have a problem with the membership of the Skeptics Society. Since they seem
          to be populated by many psychologists and psychiatrists I question their
          understanding of the issues with climate models used by the UN IPCC and their
          flawed primary climate research organization at East Anglican University.
          Skeptics provides few real facts. It seems to rely on AGW faith.

          I counter with the Global Warming Petition Project which has over 31000
          scientists who object to the AGW catastrophic predictions. Agreed that they are
          not all “Climate Scientists” but their fields of expertise and
          numbers impressed me more then the Skeptics. I suppose that the petition
          signers and I will all be arrested as “DENIERS” as per a law to be
          passed by Senator Whitehouse.

          Why not just call us racists/homophobs?

          Another counter from a real expert who started the Giaia project and was an
          originator of AGW theory follows:

          ‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock reverses himself: I was ‘alarmist’ about
          climate change & so was Gore! ‘The problem is we don’t know what the
          climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago’

          BTW James Lovelock has more credentials on atmospheric science then Al Gore,
          President Obama and John Kerry combined and dare I say, probably all of the
          Skeptics Society members.

          There are many more
          scientist that changed their opinion from catastrophic AGW and I will send
          links if you like.

          The second paragraphed of your reply is summarized by “we just need to do
          something” and CO2 is the culprit. Comparing the Ozone issue and action
          taken is an apples/oranges approach. Having the industrialized nations prohibit
          certain fluorocarbons when the third world continued to use them when their was
          available replacement was a small adjustment and slight annoyance but
          eliminating all CO2 discharges as some would support while China, India and
          Brazil,etc. continue with gross CO2 “pollution” is totally different.
          The Kyoto treaty was defeated in 1998 in the US Senate by a 98 to 0 vote
          because the requirements would make the US economy non competitive compared to
          China, India and Brazil, etc.for many products since these countries were
          excluded from the treaty. We actually have a history of meeting the non agreed
          to Kyoto limits while Canada and most of the EU do not. Wind, solar and nuclear
          are not even close to replacing fossil fuel plants. Recently I asked a public
          relations representative for Consumer Electric how long they have had their
          Ludington (water storage) project supplying energy and why haven’t they built
          more of these to work with wind farms. The response was forty years and they
          haven’t built more because of environmentalist blocks led by the Sierra Club.
          So much for rational progress!

          From the SS article “Factoids” I have comments.

          1. ‘ They Can’t Even Get Tomorrow’s Weather Forecast Right”

          Have you ever read Michael Crichton’s book/essay on the environment/climate? It
          is worth a read but especially the well researched “factoids”
          contained in many, many footnotes. He was brilliant but he did advise Bush as
          seems to be a complaint throughout this article.

          ‘We do need things like the planet-wide average of the surface temperature.
          Almost all climate scientists now agree that this is rising, and that the main
          culprit is our loading of the atmosphere with ever more CO2 by the burning of
          ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels. What this extra warmth will mean for
          life on Earth in the coming decades depends on factors like the future
          consumption of these resources.’

          Yes, the earth has been warming for the past 7-10,000 years coming out of the
          ice age.

          Please note that only
          20% of the northern hemisphere is currently monitored by terrestrial
          temperature stations many of which do not meet international standards for
          location, encroachment or construction (an issue raised by Dr Crichton). The
          southern hemisphere has even less monitor stations. Yet the satellite
          monitoring system indicates that we have not experienced warming for over 18
          years. Why does the UN IPCC continue to use terrestrial monitoring data for
          temperature and sea level in their computer models? Tidal gauges are very
          compromised by rising/sinking sea floors and coasts. We are still coming out of
          the ice age awaiting the next one.

          2. Volcanoes Are Worse Than Fossil Fuels

          ‘As vulcanologist Terry Gerlach explains in a highly readable article published
          by the American Geophysical Union (Gerlach 2011), anthropogenic CO2 emissions
          total more than 30 Gt (gigatons) per year; volcanic ones typically measure a
          mere 0.25 Gt.’

          I am disappointed in this article being purposely light on statistics. Why not
          tell us how the 30 Gt per year of anthropogenic CO2 compares to the natural CO2
          sources from land and oceans? Curious/critical thinking (denier) minds want to
          know. What is a gigaton? Is it just a very large number that serves to scare
          while giving no perspective for the size of the GIGANTIC atmosphere it exists
          in. Anthropogenic CO2 is very small compared to the 100’s of Gt from land and
          ocean sources. BTW the UN IPCC computer models do not count the underwater
          volcanoes that outnumber the above water ones.

          3. Nothing new Here

          ‘The present one is different: we can see it coming, it is global, and it is
          faster and bigger than any that has occurred for many thousands of

          No facts here and no explanation as to why the global temperature has not risen
          in over 18 years or why the Arctic ice sea cover has mostly recovered from its
          2007 minimum or why the Antarctic ice cover is at record levels Could the sun’s
          orbit or oscillation and sun spot activity as well as the earths orbit
          variations, oscillation and wobbles and other large planet interactions like
          Jupiter have significant affects? Note that the Popes meetings at the Vatican
          dis invited a French scientist (deier) who could have provided solar and
          planetary insights.

          Even Dr Niel Degrass
          Tyson seemed unboard with exaggerating AGW in the episode on Venus where he
          opened with Venus’ atmosphere being mostly sulfuric acid and later stated that
          it was mostly CO2 and said that earth could be headed that way. It would
          have been honest to give the 94% statistic for Venus CO2 and 0.039% for Earth
          atmosphere. He has never answered my email.

          Do the UN IPCC computer models consider the many varying ocean currents affect?

          Why did the Senate
          Democrats have an all night talk a thon on AGW in March of 2014 when the Great
          lakes were 97% frozen which is more than they have been since 1976? Could
          this be cyclical?

          Why have we had a
          reduction in hurricanes and tornadoes but yet brutal winters in much of the US
          breaking over 2200 cold records in February 2015 from the east coast to the mid
          west? Why were New Jersey temperatures lower then many places inside the
          article circle this past winter?

          Facts please.

          Oh who cares, we all know it is only CO2!

          4. ‘ Far Too Little Fossil Fuel CO2 to Affect Climate

          “As a percentage of the atmosphere, CO2 is up a mere 69.59 parts per million
          since 1959” (Mulshine 2009).’

          I usually disagree with Mr Mulshine but here he has a point. The concentration
          of CO2 in the atmosphere is important and it’s low number 390 PPM(parts per
          million) not the 400 PPM jumped on here because it was observed at the Hawaii
          observatory briefly in the face of nearby active volcanoes indicates a small
          fraction of the greenhouse affect observed at best. Clouds, some of which may
          be created by solar winds which is higher in concentration hitting earth during
          extended low solar flare activity, reflect radiant energy and are said to cause
          approximately 80% of the green house affect. Yes we do need the green house
          affect or we would all be blocks of ice but this article seems to assign all the
          blame to CO2. I know that the water vapor/clouds diminishes the Cap and Trade
          argument but at least mention methane as one fellow recently blamed at a
          gathering but he said COWS. I asked him if he knew the approximate
          concentration of methane in the atmosphere and it’s real sources. He did not
          and I advised that he should remain silent until he at least studied a little.
          He gave me a ridiculous CD titled “Cowsperacy” which he totally

          Please note that CO2
          has been shown by geologists to have been 20-25 times it’s current level at the
          start of the giant fern forests about 500 million years ago and 5- times as
          high as today during the dinosaur period (120-60 million years ago. I
          submit that we would not have had dinosaurs evolve had that not been the case
          (mostly herbivorous).

          ‘—CO2 component, even at its 280 ppm preindustrial level, absorbs a sizable
          fraction of the heat radiated from the surface within the first 10–20 m.1
          Without these 280 ppm, the preindustrial world would consequently have been
          some 10° C colder than it in fact was. In this context, quoting its level as a
          percentage of the total atmosphere is quite meaningless’.

          I object to the above estimate and state that the 10 degree C colder is
          ridiculous and has no bases in common sense. Convert 10 degrees C to F. Have a
          critical mind please. The answer is 18 degrees F change from 68 degrees F. WOW
          280 molecules (even 390) does not constitute enough physical coverage to cause
          the absorption at one frequency and re radiation at a different frequency that
          this implies. Does CO2 manufacture atomic energy like U235?) in the proper
          direction to send enough energy back to earth to cause the heating claimed?
          Common sense should lead to skepticism that in the real world, in the face of
          such forces as the jet stream, CO2 could not align itself and remain in a
          stable layer in the atmosphere to accomplish what is claimed.

          ‘To keep its temperature constant, Earth must radiate into space the same
          quantity of heat as it receives from the sun each second’

          If anyone understands this statement, please explain.

          NASA revised data does show the claims here might be flawed and further
          indicated that we do not understand all the many, many facets that comprise our
          global climate as James Lovelock stated when he joined the deniers.

          As we say in Italy-Basta,enough!

  • emeans

    Pricing carbon would probably reduce CO2 emissions. But market believers like yours truly, don’t like that giant sucking sound of the enormous revenues that would flow from any such tax or fee into the maw of state or federal governments. So I am intrigued by the “revenue neutral” idea — return ALL the tax proceeds back to individuals, like getting a Social Security check in my mailbox every month. For someone else’s big fat carbon footprint. Very interesting …

  • Hank

    Forgive me if I misinterpret your comments.
    I assume that you are complaining that the author of the analysis of the Pope’s encyclical has not provided any answers as to why free/open market economies have not eliminated poverty and famine.

    In reflection of the Acton author’s comments, I believe that he does not believe that free/open markets are perfect and need regulations in order to not cause the hard working poor and middle class to have to pay for the mistakes of those in charge of the financial markets (2008 crash). However, Acton feels that the Pope is stuck in an economic policy theory which has not worked in the past. I believe that socialistic economies do not work well because of rampant corruption enriching those in power who control the countries minerals without sharing the profits from foreign sales. Few reforms in those countries have worked.

    You mention the poor in Manhattan and I find in comparison the destitute in the Mexican Yucatan living in horrible shacks that can only dream of a television no less electricity, two televisions, a microwave and a computer, etc. in Manhattan on average. Yet Mexico has significant wealth from oil exports-it is just not shared.

    The beauty of America is that you do have the opportunity to better your position through hard work and dedication to improving skills that are valuable in an open/free market.

    Bill Gates, for one did it

    Our free/open economy is not a panacea but it does provide more universal opportunity.

  • Dawn Carpenter

    Perhaps we should be thinking about how Laudato si lays the spiritual ground work to begin to have a modern debate about how our economies should be in service to man? Laudato si contends that neither type of economic system (demand nor command) is sufficient to the dignity of man. In both economic systems, the challenge is one of production. In their extremes, a pure market economy results in too much production that is not shared, and a command economy results in too little production. Either way, there is unmet need. This is a dialog that we need to have in spiritual terms.

    For future reflection:

    • Aleteia

      The problem is not that some produce too much, but that many others produce almost nothing. If Sahara would be given to Japanese, Dutch, Brits, Germans or Americans, they would make an Eden garden there, meanwhile a country such as Brazil has so much resource – and wastes it. We need to think more about human potential, the importance of work ethics, the multiplication of our own talents, good decision which bear consequences, instead of looking jealously in the yard of the neighbor who fares better. The basic flaw of socialistic thinking is zero sum game.