Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Public Justice & The Pope's Environmental Encyclical

Noah Toly


By Noah Toly

June 22, 2015

Timothy Wirth, Vice Chairman of the United Nations Foundation, says “We’ve never seen a pope do anything like this.”[i] Wirth is referring, of course, to Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, which was released on June 18th.[ii] Wirth may be overstating things a bit, as Francis is certainly not the first pope to speak out about environmental concerns or even climate change. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, perceived to be far more conservative than Francis, said, “Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development, and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.”[iii] In fact, Benedict, who is cited heavily in Laudato Si’, deserves more attention for his own environmental sensibilities.

Still, Francis, who has chastised the church for too narrow a social engagement and has publicized a more expansive platform of social teaching, articulates in the encyclical a more forceful position on creation care and the human costs of environmental degradation. Moreover, the encyclical is timed for impact on climate policy, and it invites important questions about the shape of environmental institutions and religious motivations for creation care, giving it the potential to set an agenda for justice in global environmental governance.

Timing for Institutional Impact

The timing of the encyclical is significant on two fronts. For one, it has been released during the run-up to the presidential election season in the United States. With multiple Catholic candidates in the race, especially in the Republican primary election, some think the encyclical may force candidates to reckon with climate change at a level that has largely been foreign to US electoral politics. Others expect that Catholic candidates who have not yet given attention to climate change are more likely to take Pope Francis’s teaching about as seriously as some more progressive Catholic politicians have taken church teachings on abortion and birth control, which is to say, “not very.”

The release of the encyclical also comes in the months leading up to COP 21, or the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled to begin in Paris on November 30. While political scientist Benjamin Barber recently suggested that the mere mention of “COP 21” is a dismal thing, striking a discouraging note of failure for those who hoped we could establish effective climate governance more quickly, it was in some ways predictable that we would have a 21st Conference of the Parties.[iv] International climate change negotiations have been about institution building, which is often more of a plodding enterprise than we hope it might be. While environmental institutions don’t necessarily have the flash of electoral – especially presidential – politics, they can have a far more lasting impact; the timing of Francis’s encyclical is clearly meant to shape that impact.

As Andrew Revkin writes, “the campaign to make sure that the [encyclical] has as much impact as possible on climate diplomacy leading up to Paris treaty talks in December is just getting into gear.”[v] The Vatican has hosted recent events in an attempt to “strengthen the global consensus on the importance of climate change” and “elevate the moral dimensions of protecting the environment.” While the Pontifical Academy of Sciences suggests that “religious institutions can and should take the lead in bringing about [a] change in attitude toward creation” and “a sustainable relationship with nature… will succeed only if it is based on a moral revolution that religious institutions are in a special position to promote,” it also suggests the need to reform the institutions, policies, and technologies of global environmental governance – not only because of their present shortcomings but because without them we will not effectively address global environmental challenges.[vi] Indeed, Laudato Si’ recommends policy change at the local, national, and international levels, emphasizing that the “the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and human life.”[vii]

But what shape should global environmental governance take, and what do “healthy” or just environmental institutions look like?

The Problems Addressed by Environmental Institutions

In order to answer that question, we need to name the core challenges addressed by global environmental governance: scarcity, tragedy, and risk. By scarcity, we mean either the prospect of absolute scarcity or the relative scarcity represented by the mismatch of relatively fewer means to achieve our relatively abundant ends. In the case of absolute scarcity, we face the possible irreversible collapse of resource pools or permanent degradation of other environmental goods, such as biological diversity. In the case of relative scarcity, we face fundamental tradeoffs: If we can’t achieve all of our ends, we must decide which ends to pursue and which to give up. By tragedy, we don’t only mean the unhappy outcome described by Garrett Hardin as the tragedy of the commons, in which free access to certain common pool resources ensures the degradation and ultimate destruction of those resources.[viii] Rather, we mean a deeper sense of tragedy implied by Hardin and others – the need to give up some important good or right in order to avoid a collapse of resources. By risk, we mean the chances that one good or right may be harmed in the course of pursuing and securing other goods or rights. These three challenges, among many other attendant complexities, are at the core of modern environmental thought and global environmental governance.

What scarcity, tragedy, and risk all have in common is that they are expressions of what we might call “the tragic,” which is marked by the inability to secure all non-trivial goods at once or the necessity of giving up, undermining, or destroying one or more goods in order to secure one or more other goods. Responding to “the tragic” is the dilemma at the heart of environmental governance, and doing justice depends on the shape of our response.

Toward Just Environmental Institutions

Protestant theologian Edward Farley might teach us something about the challenges of environmental governance. Farley describes “the tragic” as the most fundamental aspect of the human condition, one that has its origins in our creatureliness.[ix] Our existence as finite human beings is marked by choices and tradeoffs. It is no more possible to possess all non-trivial goods at once than it is to be in two places at once. According to Farley, our various social systems – the political, the economic, and so on – represent responses to the tragic. In other words, we assemble at some cost constellations of institutions, policies, and technologies in an attempt to secure goods that are otherwise difficult to possess together, in order to integrate goods that tend, on their own, to dis-integrate, to fragment, to fall away from one another and from us.[x]

For Farley, the social systems we create to respond to the tragic are either subjugating or liberating. Subjugating social systems integrate goods for some while displacing the costs of that integration onto others. The displacement of those costs is not always intentional and may not even be discernible. Subjugating effects that may at first be invisible may become more obvious over time. Subjugating effects that are at first legible may later become more difficult to interpret. In either case, they may become more sedimented and seemingly intractable over time.

Take, for example, the modern energy regime. Burning large amounts of fossil fuels has undergirded an unprecedented increase in material welfare, allowing us to possess more goods at once than we could possibly secure by using other less powerful or more expensive sources of energy. Unfortunately, it has become clear over time that this energy regime also leads to climate change, among other costs, and the risks of climate change are borne disproportionately by future generations, marginalized populations, and vulnerable ecosystems. While it frees us from many constraints, the modern energy regime is a subjugating social system.

The least that justice demands from international climate negotiations, and from global environmental governance in general, are institutions that keep subjugating impulses in check, that make it increasingly difficult for those who integrate goods for themselves to displace the costs of that integration onto others, especially future generations, marginalized populations, and vulnerable ecosystems. We need institutions, policies, and technologies that ensure that those who accumulate the benefits of our energy regime do not displace risks, but bear risks in proportion to the benefits they accumulate. Better yet, we should build what Farley would describe as “liberating” institutions – institutions that make it increasingly possible, and more likely, that we will choose to integrate goods for others while bearing the costs ourselves.

Practically speaking, what features should global environmental institutions, policies, and technologies have in order to promote justice? Specifically, how can we stunt subjugation and make progress toward a liberating approach to climate change?

1. We need global environmental institutions with the capabilities and resources to identify, measure, and monitor the costs and benefits – and the distribution of those costs and benefits – of our energy regime. While information alone is not enough to promote justice, it will be almost impossible to promote justice without it.

2. We need institutions that can both process a wide range of preferences for how to respond to various profiles of costs and benefits and harness that variety of preferences as a source of creativity. While there are bad – read “subjugating” – ways to respond to the tragic, there are a plurality of potentially legitimate ways to respond to it. Because all of these responses involve giving up, undermining, or destroying one or more goods in order to secure others, none of them are self-justifying. The lack of self-justifying responses to the tragic can paralyze those in search of self-justification or tempt us to mask or deny the real costs of our actions, but the plurality of potentially legitimate responses can be a source of creativity.

The tragic, in other words, contains the seeds of pluralism, which is both a governance challenge and a source of new approaches to the tragic. In order to turn this pluralism to our advantage, to harness it as a source of creativity, we must be able to know and understand diverse preferences for how we approach the tragic. Unfortunately, we often hear only a narrow range voices. We need institutions that ensure that the voices of the marginalized and vulnerable are heard and that their preferences are understood, considered, and heeded.

3. We need systems, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which can work with markets to better internalize costs so that prices for energy use better reflect the costs of that energy use. While the market is neither a perfect mechanism for responding to the tragic nor a tool fit for every environmental governance challenge, it has at least two strengths. Relatively efficient market mechanisms for environmental governance can often mean that we give up, undermine, or destroy fewer goods in our attempts to integrate others. And while markets sometimes fail to serve those who do not have the ability to pay, they can be effective ways to harness pluralism and they do have the potential to efficiently process a wide range of preferences about how to negotiate the tragic. Market mechanisms for global environmental governance, though, must aim to internalize all costs and benefits in any transaction.

4. We need institutions that promote transparency and communication to make it possible for people to choose to bear costs on behalf of others more often. If I’m to choose to bear costs for others so that they will benefit from more goods, then I must understand the effects of my actions. From the labeling of goods and services with environmental “footprints” to seminars and workshops on the effects of environmental degradation on far-flung populations, we must promote a broader understanding of our impacts on the environment and on others. Then we should choose not only to limit the negative impacts, but to increase the positive ones.

Faith and the Motivation for Change

Global environmental institutions with these features would temper injustice and provide a platform for doing justice. Environmental institutions, however, do not stand alone. Their efficacy depends to some extent on individual and community change that is “impossible without motivation and a process of education.”[xi] Religious institutions, broadly speaking, have a key role to play in animating that change, in promoting a moral revolution that undergirds the development of more just environmental institutions, and in educating us to make use of those institutions. As Francis writes, “faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for their other brothers and sisters.”[xii] The Christian church in particular must call believers to an “‘ecological conversion’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.”[xiii]

This encounter with Jesus Christ should ground Christian responses to the central challenges of the tragic. Where there are no self-justifying responses to the tragic – where our always-costly responses to the tragic are joined by paralysis, denial, or a “sense of ineluctable guilt”[xiv] that often accompanies undermining or destroying one good in favor of another – the Christian church can point us to the only true source of justification and the one who justifies us when we cannot possibly justify ourselves. Where we need a teacher of and pattern for liberation, the Christian church can again point us to the one whose ultimately liberating words and work show us what it means and takes to absorb costs so that others might enjoy the benefits. If we establish our response to environmental challenges on the person and work of Jesus Christ, maybe we’ll motivate broader engagement with more just environmental institutions. Perhaps we will not only hear, “We’ve never seen a pope do anything like this,” but we’ll hear, “We’ve never seen the church do anything like this.”

Questions for Reflection:

  • Do you agree with Farley’s assessment that tradeoffs and choices are part of the human condition? That subjugating social systems overcome tradeoffs by displacing costs onto others and that liberating social systems overcome tradeoffs for others by bearing costs for them?
  • What can you do to better understand the environmental impacts of your actions? What limits do you face to understanding those impacts?
  • What role do you think religious institutions have in motivating the reform of global environmental institutions? 

Noah Toly is Director of the Center for Urban Engagement (CUE) and Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. His research and teaching interests include urban and environmental politics and ethics.


[ii] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican, 2015).

[vii] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, 106.

[ix] Edward Farley, Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).

[x] For more on the disintegration of goods and our attempts to integrate them, see William Schweiker, Responsibility & Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[xi] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, 14.

[xii] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, 46, emphasis added.

[xiii] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, 159.

[xiv] Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Beacon Press, 1986).

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”