NEWS Pope Francis’s global metaphor for wealth and climate

NPR Piece with Scott Tong on the Cli­mate Encycli­cal (Sep­tem­ber 22, 2015)

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Pope Fran­cis, in speak­ing about cli­mate change this week, is likely to use the term “global north and south.” The term isn’t heard much in the United States. But it is the pontiff’s view of where the world’s wealth tends to be, and where the envi­ron­men­tal effects caused by devel­op­ment are.

Before the white smoke at the Vat­i­can declared him pope, he was some­times called Bishop of the Slums at home in Argentina. He fre­quented the so-​​called “mis­ery vil­lages” of Buenos Aires.

Argentina at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury was one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries in the world,” said pro­fes­sor Joseph Kaboski, who teaches eco­nom­ics at Notre Dame. “And they’ve fallen. Now they’re a middle-​​income coun­try. So mate­r­ial poverty is a big­ger issue in a place like Argentina.”

Places, that is, where inequal­ity is rel­a­tively high.

As far as the world’s rich and poor, the pope speaks to an “eco­log­i­cal debt” between the global north and south.

The south­ern hemi­sphere is poorer than the north­ern, and still-​​developing coun­tries, mainly in the south, suf­fer out­sized effects from min­ing and drilling for min­er­als and energy.

They also suf­fer out­sized effects of cli­mate change, said econ­o­mist Jef­frey Sachs of Colum­bia University’s Earth Insti­tute. He advised the pope’s Vat­i­can coun­cil on climate.

The pope is mak­ing a point that they are already suf­fer­ing mis­er­ably from increas­ing envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion,” Sachs said. “And they are likely to suf­fer the most, the earliest.”

A defin­ing paper on cli­mate eco­nom­ics, called the Stern Review, found devel­op­ing coun­tries tend to be warmer to start out. They rely more on farm­ing and sta­ble rain pat­terns. When the rains aren’t, Sachs said, it looks like Syria.

The droughts were unre­lent­ing — lead­ing to crop fail­ures as well as soar­ing food prices,” he said. “And that turned into mass protests, gov­ern­ment crack­downs, and into a blood­bath and a catastrophe.”

Syria, of course, is not in the south­ern hemi­sphere, but the pope’s con­struc­tion of a global north and south is also a metaphor.

The north and the south is a com­monly used dichotomy to divide the rich and the poor,” said Brian Mur­ray, an envi­ron­men­tal econ­o­mist at Duke University.

There is a pol­icy impli­ca­tion here: The Kyoto cli­mate treaty — the basis of global cli­mate change talks — and the pope’s encycli­cal assume rich coun­tries bear more respon­si­bil­ity for address­ing cli­mate change.

As the think­ing goes, they indus­tri­al­ized and pol­luted first, and their green­house gases can linger for centuries.

What this will do, though, is pro­vide the devel­op­ing coun­tries some bar­gain­ing power, if you will, by ref­er­ence to the moral author­ity of the pope,” Mur­ray said.

The focus on poor and rich has drawn crit­i­cism in the U.S.: that the pope is Marx­ist, which he’s denied; or that he’s reviv­ing a doc­trine of pref­er­ence for the poor known as Lib­er­a­tion Theology.

At the very least, this is meant to shake up the rich coun­tries, Berke­ley energy physi­cist Dan Kam­men said. He also advised the Vatican.

We don’t want to reduce the qual­ity of life,” he said, “we want to reduce the foot­print of that life. And that hasn’t been empha­sized so much in West­ern cap­i­tal­ist economies. But it’s where we’re start­ing to see a very inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion around liv­ing within our resource means.”

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