The Politics    Friday, June 19, 2015

The greatest moral challenge of our time?

By Sean Kelly

The Pope gets sharp on climate change

The Pope issued an encyclical last night.

That’s an odd sentence (with a near-ring of humorous euphemism to my ears), so I’ll briefly explain. An encyclical is a type of letter sent by the Pope, usually to officials of the Catholic church (bishops and so forth), setting out his thoughts on a particular matter. It is one of the most authoritative interventions a Pope can make.

This encyclical was the first ever to focus on the environment. It is huge global news, reported everywhere. The Papal purpose lies beyond communicating with priests, or even Catholics – the letter is directed thus: “I wish to address every person living on this planet … I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” It is also written not in Latin, as most encyclicals are, but in everyday Italian. Its mission is wide.

It is long and comprehensive and nuanced, but at its essence the encyclical is a call for greater action on climate change.

What struck me about it – or about the bits I have read so far – is the sharpness. It is sharp in its critique of indifference: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Sharp in calling out the failings of politics and business: “To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics.” Sharp in holding us all to account for the waste we produce: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

I am not suggesting that anybody – or at least non-Catholics – should act on climate change simply because the Pope says so. Relying on the views of those one might ordinarily disagree with (and the Pope and I would have a few disputes) is too often the refuge of people who cannot be bothered to make a case, or of those with no case to make.

In fact, I would differ with the Pope even on elements of this encyclical. He argues that concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with the justification of abortion. He also comes out strongly against the sale of “carbon credits”, which would cover emissions trading schemes and possibly some of the Coalition’s direct action policies as well.

The significance of the Pope’s message for me lies in his restoration of a moral element to the international discussion of climate change.

In this country it has become enormously fashionable to talk about climate change as an economic issue. Sometimes it is also talked about as an environmental issue. The moral aspect is forgotten.

In part this is because of the ridicule heaped on Kevin Rudd for walking away from emissions trading after describing climate change as “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”. The word “moral” has, in Australia, in relation to climate change, taken on a slightly parodic tone.

But Rudd was correct on this, as well as several years ahead of the church he grew up with. And this is what Pope Francis reminds us of. Rudd’s language anticipated that used by the pontiff – it is a pity that Australians have, in the past few years, left it behind.

The Pope reminds us that we inhabit a “common home”, and asks: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” More pointedly, he talks about the world’s “grave social debt towards the poor”, and argues that rich people and rich nations will have to take on a greater share of the work ahead.

He writes: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start …”

Politics is often almost pedantically concerned with the technicalities of cost and benefit calculations, with the use of numbers and dollars as the only metrics of what is worth doing. Pope Francis has reminded us it doesn’t have to be that way. 


Today’s links

  • Former national security law watchdog Bret Walker SC has said Tony Abbott should apologise to him, and slammed the government for its “absurd” handling of the citizenship and terrorism debate.
  • Ian Chappell is embarrassed about Australia’s treatment of refugees.
  • Metadata from Australians’ phone calls and internet usage was accessed more than 300,000 times in 2013–14.
  • An interesting piece from Mathew Kenneally on Gillard, Rudd, gender, and why ambition has nothing to do with morality.
  • The SMH reports that Bill Shorten’s union donated money to his 2007 federal election campaign when he was secretary of the union. Anthony Albanese has said Shorten will lead Labor to the next election, and former Queensland premier Peter Beattie has said that if Shorten cannot answer questions put by the Royal Commission (about other allegations) he is “politically finished”. Businessman Tony Shepherd has defended Shorten, saying he got good pay rates for workers. David Crowe’s thoughts on Shorten’s week here.
  • The Sydney siege review wasn’t provided with a letter from the gunman, Man Haron Monis, to Attorney-General George Brandis because the letter was hidden on the second tab of a spreadsheet. Ah, human error. (Which most errors are, right?)
  • There’s a lot of discussion in the US about gun control after the shootings in Charleston. This piece in The Washington Post suggests President Obama has basically surrendered on the issue.
  • 60 artists and artistic leaders have met with Labor and Greens MPs about the budget changes to arts funding.
  • Clementine Ford has (absolutely rightly) attacked Sunrise for a Facebook post suggesting women were to blame for their exes sharing nude photos of them as revenge.
  • I’m including this on the basis that she is arguably our head of state. The Queen confounded bookmakers (who take bets on such things) by wearing a hat that was allegedly pistachio-coloured. I have never seen a pistachio that colour, but perhaps they’re different in Britain.
  • And, in other UK news, previously unpublished memoirs by the original Iron Lady show Thatcher’s virulent distrust of her foreign secretary at the height of the Falklands War.
  • The CEO of News Corp Australia has (entirely expectedly) stepped down

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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