Climate Change Is A Global Commons Problem: The New Papal Encyclical

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Originally published on Energy Post.
By Brigitte Knopf

With his encyclical “Laudato Si” the Pope has written more than a moral appeal without obligation. He has presented a pioneering political analysis with great explosive power, which will probably determine the public debate on climate change, poverty and inequality for years to come, argues Brigitte Knopf from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. Through her secular eyes the implications of the encyclical become even more apparent: path-breaking is especially the fact that the Pope frames the atmosphere as a “global commons” and not as a “no man’s land”, which everybody, including the owners of fossil fuel resources, may pollute. 

The core of the encyclical makes clear that global warming is a “global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods” (25). The reasons identified are mainly the current models of production and consumption (26). The encyclical emphasizes that the gravest effects of climate change and the increasing inequality are suffered by the poorest (48). Since we face a complex socio-ecological crisis, strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty (139). So far, however, governments have not found a solution for the over-exploitation of the global commons, such as atmosphere, oceans, and forests (169). Therefore, the encyclical focuses on actors, such as non-governmental organizations, cooperatives and intermediate groups (179) and calls for a dialogue between politics, science, business and religion.

Even Jeb Bush, the presidential candidate, does not deny climate change itself, but says that the human role in climate change is “convoluted“

The encyclical is, with 246 individual points, too extensive to be discussed in here in its entirety, but three aspects are particularly noteworthy:

  1. it is based unequivocally on the scientific consensus that global warming is taking place and that climate change is man-made; it rejects the denial of anthropogenic warming;
  2. it unmasks the political and economic structures of power behind the climate change debate and stresses the importance of non-state actors in achieving change; and
  3. it defines the atmosphere and the environment as a common good rather than a “no man’s land”, available for anyone to pollute. This underlines that climate change is strongly related to the issues of justice and property rights.

1. The Pope and the Science

The statements of the Pope concerning the scientific basis are in principle nothing new. The scientific consensus is recognized in the encyclical at the outset: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. […] A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases […] released mainly as a result of human activity” (23). Moreover, the Pope refers to the scientifically long-established fact that the use of fossil fuels and deforestation are the main causes of climate change (23).

What is now a commonplace in Europe is not uniformly accepted in the US. A turbulent debate surrounding the encyclical began even before its official publication. This is understandable, given that there are many in the US who still cast doubt on the scientific basis of climate change. Even Jeb Bush, the presidential candidate, does not deny climate change itself, but says that the human role in climate change is “convoluted.” Rick Santorum, also a Republican presidential candidate, has actually rejected the right of the Pope to comment on the scientific basis of climate change. There is no doubt that there will be a heated argument on this part of the encyclical, especially in the US and that this will also frame the American debate on the future international climate agreement that is expected to be negotiated by the end of this year in Paris.

2. The Pope and Politics

Although the encyclical puts a focus on the poor it is not merely a moral scripture. It is also no ordinary appeal to governments to act. On the contrary, it explicitly states that international negotiations have so far not made significant progress (169) and blames international politics for its weak response (54). In addition, the pope unmasks in very clear terms the political interests of those who deny climate change and hinder mitigation: “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change” (26).

The encyclical thus implicitly describes the core problem of climate policy: we currently use the atmosphere as a disposal space. Everyone is allowed to pollute the atmosphere without paying for the negative externalities

The Pope does not address governments as main actors, but neither does he frame the climate problem as the responsibility of each individual only. Instead, the encyclical underlines the importance of collective actors such as cooperatives, non-governmental organizations and civil society (179).

However, the encyclical remains rather unspecific concerning concrete recommendations for action to prevent climate change and overcome poverty. The Pope does not comment on whether the 2°C temperature limit is adequate or whether 1.5°C would be more appropriate from the perspective of the poorest. Concerning energy sources, the Pope often refers to renewable energy (26, 164) and explicitly states that coal, oil and gas need “to be progressively replaced without delay” (165). But he does not provide any further details on transformation scenarios or requirements for specific technologies. This is for good reason; it is not the task of the Pope to seriously intervene in politics. In this sense, the Pope also recognizes the different areas of competence of religion, politics and science.

3. The Pope and the Global Commons

Much more important than the choice of energy sources is the question of ownership of the global commons. Here, the encyclical states: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (23). Several times the Pope refers to the common good and stresses that the “global commons” (174), such as the atmosphere, oceans, forests, and biosphere, belong to us all.

The encyclical thus implicitly describes the core problem of climate policy: we currently use the atmosphere as a disposal space. Everyone is allowed to pollute the atmosphere without paying for the negative externalities. Science has shown that we are limited to atmospheric emissions of around 1,000 GtCO2 in order not to exceed the 2 degree temperature limit (see Figure 1). However, substantial fossil resources are still stored in the ground, and these would give rise to emissions of about 15,000 GtCO2 due to combustion. If, due to climate policy, these fossil fuels may no longer be used, the resources would necessarily be devalued. The owners of coal, oil and gas would in fact be expropriated. In this context, the encyclical stresses the principle of “subordination of private property” (93-95, 156-158). This means that private property of fossil fuels can only be ethically justified if it serves the common good.Therefore, the devaluation of assets is not an unjustified disenfranchisement, but is legitimate because it serves the common good, namely the reduction of the risks and consequences of climate change.


Figure 1: The Global Commons and the fundamental problem of climate policy: there are still plenty of fossil resources in the ground, but only a limited disposal space in the atmosphere left. Data: Atmosphere: IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report, Table 2.2.; Resource: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy, Figure 1.7. Source: Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

To frame the climate problem as a “global commons” problem has far reaching consequences. This became clear when the term was relegated by the governments from the main text into a footnote in the report of the IPCC Working Group III. Some countries feared legal and distributional consequences. If the atmosphere is accepted as being a global commons, this immediately raises the question of who owns the atmosphere and who is allowed to pollute it. The encyclical is very clear about this: “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” (95). Ownership thus goes hand in hand with a responsibility to take into account the principles of justice. The currently prevailing “law of the jungle”, causing the atmosphere to be overused in terms of the deposition of carbon ad infinitum, is thus de-legitimized by the Pope.

4. Implications for the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris

The encyclical is only expected to have an indirect effect on the UN climate change conference – but it will probably be long-lasting.  Its timing may have a positive impact on the negotiations in Paris, but more importantly, it is timeless and emphasizes the fundamental question of solving the intertwined problems of climate change, poverty and inequality. Providing an answer to these questions is becoming globally ever more pressing. The encyclical does not address the governments directly but refers to a global “ecological movement” (166). For the Pope it is clear: without pressure from the public and from civic institutions there will be no progress (181).

With this analysis the encyclical describes a phenomenon that has now become global. While the nations of the G7 commit to decarbonization but take no concrete measures, there are many positive signs of movement in the climate carousel aside from the international climate negotiations: a new study by UNEP shows that a substantial contribution can be made to reduce emissions by cities and other subnational actors; the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund has decided to sell its coal investments and sends a strong signal for a global divestment strategy; and six large oil companies get together begging for pricing CO2 emissions.

Individual actions alone will achieve little, but together they can make a difference; they could well contribute to an international climate agreement serving as a foundation for the governance of the global commons.

The fact that the commons can indeed be successfully managed has already been proven at the local level: Elinor Ostrom has shown that communities can develop diverse institutional arrangements for managing the commons without overexploitation. For this finding, Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009. It is now time to show that the management of global commons is collectively possible.

Perhaps this is the overarching message of the encyclical: the fair management of the global commons is one of the most important tasks of the 21st century. This can only be successful if a large number of actors across different levels of governance, ranging from global, to regional and local, link up together. This convinces also me as an atheist: heaven belongs to us all.

Dr. Brigitte Knopf is Secretary General of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). She is an expert on European energy and climate policy and one of the Editors of the Book “Climate Change, Justice and Sustainability.” She is on Twitter as @BrigitteKnopf

Reprinted with permission.

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