A Papal Encyclical, Fossil Fuels, and an Economic Vocabulary

The Pope has received considerable attention for his encyclical on climate change (more accurately the Encylical On Care for Our Common Home).  The Encyclical specifically mentioned problems associated with the use of fossel fuels.  Id. ("The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system.").  

The Encyclical calls on the reduced reliance on these sources of fuel.  See Id. ("We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels -- especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas -- needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions.")

The Encyclical has been described as providing "a moral vocabulary for talking about climate change".  The question is whether it also becomes an economic vocabulary and affects business practices.  The Encyclical was certainly noticed by the socially responsible investment community.  The Encyclical also, however, provides an additional basis for pressuring investment funds to divest from companies engaging in practices criticized by the Pope.   

Whether the moral vocabulary will translate into economic practices will take time to determine.  Endowments held by Catholic universities and organizations are one place to look for early signs.  

In early June, Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit University in the US, passed a resolution to divest from “companies whose principal business is mining coal for use in energy production.”  The resolution was adopted before the publication of the Encyclical but used a similar vocabulary.  See Georgetown University Resolution ("As a Catholic and Jesuit University, Georgetown has a responsibility to lead on issues of justice and the common good such as environmental protection and sustainability. Climate change is real and poses a serious threat.").    

An article in HuffPo described other Catholic Universities as in "no rush" to divest from fossil fuels.  But the Encyclical is only a few weeks old.  So the jury is and will remain out for some time on the economic impact of the Encyclical.  Nonetheless, one suspects that the terms of the debate, both morally and economically, will undergo revision.     

J Robert Brown Jr.