God delights as Pope transpires not to be total ass.

December 15th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in climate change, mail, religion | 26 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday December 15 2007

The Pope condemns the climate change prophets of doom,” roared the headline on Thursday. Basically if the Daily Mail goes out of business, I’ll have to give up this column. “Pope Benedict XVI has launched a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom, warning them that any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not on dubious ideology.”

Jesus, did he? “The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.” The pope is pulling no punches, and these criticisms have been taken up and propagated by every climate change crank in town, both online and in print. “The German-born Pontiff said that while some concerns may be valid it was vital that the international community based its policies on science rather than the dogma of the environmentalist movement.”

Golly. Now firstly, his message wasn’t mostly about climate change. You can read it for yourself, in its entirety, at qurl.com/popery. It is called the “the human family, a community of peace”, and it was mostly about development issues and the importance of family. It was also really nice, if somewhat mawkish and occasionally tinged with an edge of barely repressed censorious brutality.

He does mention the environment, and he is very cool on it indeed. “Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow.” Air guitar. He talks about equality and development issues, and it sounds to me like he respects the IPPR: “It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.”

And it looks like he respects Stern too: “If the protection of the environment involves costs, they should be justly distributed, taking due account of the different levels of development of various countries and the need for solidarity with future generations.”

In fact the pope rocks: “Prudence does not mean failing to accept responsibilities and postponing decisions; it means being committed to making joint decisions after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment.”

But wait. According to the Mail: “The 80-year-old Pope said the world needed to care for the environment but not to the point where the welfare of animals and plants was given a greater priority than that of mankind.” Well, what he actually said was: “Human beings, obviously, are of supreme worth vis-à-vis creation as a whole. Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man.” Next sentence:”Rather, it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits.”

Sounds very sensible. Perhaps there is a special hidden code that only the Mail can understand? Mind you, if you’re looking for hidden messages, I was quite struck by the bit where he calls George Bush a penis: “It is essential… to choose the path of dialogue rather than the path of unilateral decisions. Further international agencies may need to be established in order to confront together the stewardship of this “home” of ours; more important, however, is the need for ever greater conviction about the need for responsible cooperation.”

And I think he’s talking about the Bali talks when he says: “The problems looming on the horizon are complex and time is short. In order to face this situation effectively, there is a need to act in harmony.” He then goes on to discuss how we should be courteous about the developing world’s need for energy. Seriously. The pope takes a right on, evidence based line.

Now obviously we’re all amused by the idea that the Pope wants everyone’s beliefs to be based on hard evidence rather than fanciful moralising ideology; and I fully realise that we’re talking about a man who sits on the fence over evolution (and I do remember that he wants to leave sweet little babies who could be saved by stem cell research to die tragically).

But nonetheless, you care what the pope thinks about global warming, and about the prophets of doom: because hundreds of millions of other people do. Out of sheer decency, if the pope speaks sense, at Christmas, I will raise a drink to the man.


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26 Responses



  1. mottainai said,

    December 15, 2007 at 1:59 am

    Good article Ben. On a the Christmas/climate/global warming theme, there is an interesting discussion analysis here – www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/12/live-almost-from-agu–dispatch-3/
    – read about the return of the Ptarmigans then follow the Sheep Albedo Feedback link. Enjoy…

  2. mottainai said,

    December 15, 2007 at 2:02 am

    www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/12/live-almost-from-agu–dispatch-3/
    repost link

  3. JQH said,

    December 15, 2007 at 7:43 am

    The Hate really doesn’t care who it misrepresents. Now is Benedict going to sue or wait for the Big Man Upstairs to make with the lightning bolts?

  4. le canard noir said,

    December 15, 2007 at 8:37 am

    Is the Pope an environmentalist? Does bear shit give off methane in the woods?

  5. muscleman said,

    December 15, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Well if E.O. Wilson can make with the evangelical fundies over the pond to persuade them that stewardship of the environment means not fucking it up, then we can welcome the Popemobile into the big tent and show the old gent where to piss out.

    IOW I agree with Ben, we should be pleased when the arguments and the evidence persuade world leaders, and the pope is one, that global warming is a real and present danger which we can and should do something about now.

    Yes, he may remain a mysoginistic, reactionary, utterly illogical old srote, but that doesn’t mean he cannot sometimes be right. We don’t have to accept all he says to agree and support him on this one he has got right. Especially since the problem is now so serious we cannot afford to alienate anyone who agrees with the science.

  6. Ambrielle said,

    December 15, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    Stupid Grauniad left out the best paragraph (second to last).

  7. Andrew Taylor said,

    December 15, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Yeah, seems like he talked some sense there.

    But I still think he’s an ass.

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 15, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    well, yeah, obviously he’s an ass about most stuff. but he says some quite chilled out things about international development in that speech (perhaps because that’s where his power base increasingly lies, but all the same) and he’s certainly okay on the environment.

  9. confuseling said,

    December 15, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    I kinda think he got his fingers burnt, and has had to reign his thoughts back in. Prejudiced, maybe…

    But he’s done some REALLY scary stuff, like when he recently goaded Islam just for the sake of it (lots of people do that, but they’re not pretending to be the same God’s representative on earth), and when he claimed that Latin America was longing for Catholicism (yeah! that and smallpox).

    I’m all for commending people for saying good things, whoever they are, so I’m certainly not having a dig at Ben (its a funny article, as ever).

    But we’ve got to remember who we’re dealing with. He used to be known as God’s Rotweiler when he was heading up the organisation that used to front the inquisition. Nice to have him on side; it is, after all, going to have to be a very big tent. Sort of a marquee, in fact. But he can sit at a different table, thanks.

  10. Citizen Deux said,

    December 15, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    The race baiting and divisive techniques employed by the media are stunning. Whether it is propogating flat out fallacies (homeopathy) or CNN like replaying the lastest altercation and framing it as if it is the riots of the 1960s all over again.

    Honestly, there isn’t a reporter writing whom I would trust to capture the truth of any story. Although I am an avowed “skeptic”, including AGW, the representation of the pope (who is really quite dull and inactive compared to prior pontiffs) in this light is simply irresponsible.

    Remember his “Islam is violent” quotation?

  11. projektleiterin said,

    December 15, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    Ok, I just skimmed through his speech and yes, he says some really nice things about men, women, children and humanity in general, which is still unctuous hypocritical blabber to me unless the Church is able to take a realistic and genuinely human approach to issues such a family planning, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

    Please, someone tell me how efficient any steps to protect the environment can be if you have on the other side of the world a rapidly growing population that needs resources and has no qualms about exploiting the environment because survival is a higher priority. The pope can do his share to counteract global warming, he prefers to hold benevolent speeches though.

    I confess, I so dislike this bunch of hypocrites that I derive some kind of perverted satisfaction whenever I hear American Christian fundamentalists claim that Catholics are not Christians. :D

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 16, 2007 at 3:01 am

    heh are there american fundies who say catholics are not christians? links please! there’s nothing that amuses me more than woo infighting. coming up next: how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin?

  13. bob.appleyard said,

    December 16, 2007 at 8:05 am

    With regards to the family planning environmental stuff: I consider it Malthusian nonsense that has been thoroughly debunked in all its guises. Yes, there is a limit to what the ground will take. But we haven’t reached it yet, at all.

    The resource problem we are faced with now is one of distribution, not of production.

  14. jodyaberdein said,

    December 16, 2007 at 9:24 am

    I think that we may well be past a Malthusian limit for CO2 emissions actaully. I think Mayer Hillman suggests we try to get down to 2 tonnes of CO2 per capita per annum.
    Given that we are past the limit globally despite the fact that most of the population emit 0.5 tonnes or less, I think this provides an intersting Malthusian style problem.

    the Global Commons Intsitute, who came up with contraction and convergence, have some nice graphs to illustrate the point.

    www.gci.org.uk/contconv/cc.html

  15. projektleiterin said,

    December 16, 2007 at 10:30 am

    bob.appleyard, could you give more information, please? I have heard this claim regarding the supply of food, that it’s a problem of distribution and not one of production, but it’s new to me that this also applies to environmental issues.

  16. John_M said,

    December 16, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    re: Food, from view of old farmboy

    1) Well, starvation has often been caused by distribution problems, especially with bad governments.

    HOWEVER

    2) I suggest reading “The End of Cheap Food” just recently in The Economist:
    www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10252015

    Some of this effect is transient, but some is going to be with us for a long time. Food is going to get more expensive.

    3) If you don’t know about Peak Oil, see David Strahan’s
    www.lastoilshock.com/
    or
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil

    4) Among other things:
    a) Oil is about to peak or already has (if you believe famous oilman T. Boone Pickens). Given population growth, and rapidly increasing demand in China/India, one can expect that the price of oil will (with usual jiggles) continue to rise.

    Higher oil prices ==> higher food costs, because:

    – Big efficient farms use machinery, which funs on diesel/gas.

    – Farms use fuel to get food to market.

    – Even ignoring silly trade, a lot of food is grown in places not close to where its consumers live. In particular, the huge, efficient farms of the North American midwest depend on cheap fuel to ship their food to the coasts and outside N. America. As I recall, the UK imports some food, an unless it’s coming via trains through the Chunnel, fuel is burnt to get it there.

    – in The USA, there is serious competition for farmland between food crops and fuel crops. Corn-based ethanol is only a stepping stone to cellulosic ethanol (like switchgrass or miscanthus), but there *will* be more acres devoted to fuel, if only to have fuel for the part of the farm system that can’t be electrified.

    (On the plus side, maybe could eliminate tobacco, as there is plenty of prime farmland used for that.)

    – Some input for farming (fertilizer) needs to get shipped.

    b) Speaking of fertilizer, nitrogen-based fertilizer is usually made from natural gas, which is also tending to get more expensive, and when natural gas Peaks in a couple decades, it will take very hard work to keep yields up. [No-till farming, more GM foods, etc; reducing the resulting Nitrous Oxide (a Greenhouse gas) is a good thing, as is reducing excess runoff, but still, a lot of the Green revolution depends on fertilizer inputs. Google: Norman Borlaug

    We will burn all the oil & gas we can reasonably get, which will warm the planet, but maybe is recoverable. If we also try to burn all the coal, we will melt Greenland and the WAIS, at least.

    c) And then there’s water. California grows half of the fruit&veggies in the US, and with global warming, we have serious work ahead, because our water system depends on Sierra Mountains snowmelt patterns, in which snow builds up over a few months, and then slowly melts over the rest of the (precipitation-free) months.

    CA is rich and can deal with this. The similar effect in the Himalayas affects a lot more agriculture.

    Also, the productive High Plains area of the US sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer

    In some parts, water is dropping 100X faster than it is being recharged.

    Google: aquifer stress

    5) Now, this is not doom-and-gloom, because there are many useful actions to be taken to stretch oil+gas while we switch to renewable power, electric tractors, and enough biofuel to handle the non-electrifiable part of the transporation system.

    But still, I expect food to get more expensive.

  17. Teek said,

    December 17, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    shameless twisting of otherwise sensible comments, even for the DM. nasty people with an enormous axe to grind – grrr.

  18. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 18, 2007 at 12:16 am

    Incidentally, while the faithful are said to make allowances for matters into which the Holy Father may have not looked very closely, such as birth control, I daresay that if he commanded his flock to stop buying the Daily Mail it’d hurt (I presume some do buy it, or why is he in it?) And what’s more there is the whole Nazi thing that he has which it wouldn’t hurt to draw a line under. Well, they go on about it on [The Now Show].

  19. recinort said,

    December 21, 2007 at 9:45 am

    As a happy sceptic, scientist and Christian I have long enjoyed this column, particularly it’s critique of general media daftness.

    But it does strike me that this thread is turning into a bit of an atheist rant. There are plenty of things well worth bashing Christians over (and I’ll happily help with that- we Christians are always best at fighting amongst ourselves). But there are lots of places to be out and proud atheist without associating a science column with automatic atheism. Not that there’s anything wrong with being an Atheist. Or a scientist. But it’d be a pity to become further sidelined as a niche of liberal atheist scientists rather than a broader group holding the media coverage up to (scientific) scrutiny.

  20. Squander Two said,

    December 21, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Well said, recinort.

    I’m an atheist myself, but the arrogance of most atheists is simply embarassing. Fair enough that you disagree with the Pope about various things (so do I), but this assumption that if he disagrees with you that must be because he’s stupid and hasn’t really looked at the issues is just absurd. Modern Christianity is built on the collected works of some of the greatest minds in history. They have not reached the same conclusions as you. Get over it.

    Like the whole contraception thing. If you’re in the business of spreading an ideology, and you recognise that probably the most effective method of communicating an ideology is from parent to child, in what way is contraception a good idea? Contraception’s a terrible idea, and the Church have two thousand years of evidence, during which they’ve managed to spread their ideology from a handful of hippy rebels in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire into being in active control of the two largest empires the world has ever seen and being one of the most widespread religions in history. To claim that their position is not evidence-based is ridiculous. They don’t have the same aims as you do, but they are very very good at achieving their aims.

    Oh, and the Church’s position on condoms is immaterial, since they preach that you should never have sex with anyone but your spouse and you should never divorce. If everyone followed the Church’s advice on sexual matters, AIDS would still be an obscure disease that only a handful of specialist doctors had heard of. I admit that I have not followed the Catholic Church’s advice on sexual behaviour in my life — I had premarital sex — but, weirdly, I don’t blame the Church for the consequences of my actions when I’m doing exactly what they tell me not to.

  21. projektleiterin said,

    December 21, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    I’m checking this thread to see if applebob has answered me and what do I see, to my utter astonishment I see that I might have ticked off some Christians. :D Or should I say “Catholics”? Maybe we need to define the term “Christians” first before we use it so loosely. :D

    Did I say the Church was stupid in the sense of low intellect? As #26 pointed out, it might be that they are very clever and manipulative and we non-believers do not get it, but should that be the main characterics of an institution that claims as an objective universal peace, love and harmony on earth? – Let’s instead encourage people to produce many many offsprings that all become Christians, then we can claim that we have a huge number of happy believers. If we really push them hard to have many kids, maybe we can even surpass the number of happy Muslims! *gasp*

    And of course the Church is against premarital sex, because they had foreseen that one day we would have a problem with AIDS. It was a well calculated step to prevent the epidemic spread of a deadly disease and it’s a shame that people can not appreciate their foresight. If only we had listened to the Church, then we would have no problem with AIDS. If only we listened to the Church more we would all be incredibly happy people. We’d be completely diseasefree, no AIDS, no cancer, no gays, no damn liberals, no bad science. Just the thought of this makes me fall into a happy delirium.

    And Christians are invited to chime in and present their opinion. Maybe that’s better than complaining that atheists are taking over this board.

  22. mybad said,

    December 22, 2007 at 11:34 am

    ‘Fanciful moralising ideology’? Last time I heard this it came from people who called themselves scientists. Read the article ‘Homeopathy Go Home’ at www.roughgang.com

  23. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 24, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Scientists are in the scepticism business. Christians (as I understand the term) have an obligation to believe, otherwise you won’t be saved from the damnation that God has prepared for you. Sceptisicism kills. So obviously you make sure you do the right thing according to context.

    Apart from that, we mind our own business… mostly; I don’t know if it’s confirmed yet that this year the Vatican’s Nativity diorama loses all that stuff about a stable, and… the Archbishop of Canterbury apparently has had to clarify remarks:
    www.christianpost.com/article/20071220/30579_Archbishop_of_Canterbury_Dismisses_Three_Wise_Men_as_'Legend‘.htm
    A manger yes, three kings no. The bible says (and doesn’t say) so.

    As for where the thread goes, I think on the whole it’s best to look at the original article. Perhaps it could be made easier to transfer a discussion into the general forum. Then we might not get hundreds of articles debating homeopathy on these pages but we could afford that.

  24. Aindriu said,

    January 3, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    To the Pope, the faith-based ideology of the environmentalists would be deemed more dangerous than the scientist who’s systems of deduction are well documented.

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  26. Chadders said,

    November 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    I would like to point out that your quote about the Pope wanting ‘to leave sweet little babies who could be saved by stem cell research to die tragically’ is not based on some airy-fairy religious zeal, but on the fact that embryonic stem cell therapy involves taking a human life at the early stages of development. I am not a Catholic, and I definitely find his approach to contraception dubious at best as It has forced poor families to become even poorer by having 10 children, but even though I am not sure about embryonic stem cell therapy myself, I feel that the Pope has the right to speak out and defend human rights (for a refreshing change). Many people against stem cell therapy are more than happy for adult stem cell research to be undertaken. At the end of the day, you’re just letting another little baby die with stem cell therapy in that one’s place.
    Oh, and thank you for the invite from comment #28.