The Pope’s Encyclical

Constitutional lawyers who work on issues of equal rights are familiar with the concept of “disparate impact,” a term describing laws that are facially neutral but nevertheless have a very different effect upon citizens who are differently situated. Sometimes that different impact is intended; often it is not.

What brought that bit of “legalese” to mind was this recent headline in the New York Times: “Pope Francis to Explore Climate’s Impact on the World’s Poor.”

The article began by discussing a meeting between high-level representatives of the U.N. and the Pope:

Mr. Ban, the United Nations secretary general, had brought the leaders of all his major agencies to see Pope Francis, a show of organizational muscle and respect for a meeting between two global institutions that had sometimes shared a bumpy past but now had a mutual interest.

The agenda was poverty, and Francis inveighed against the “economy of exclusion” as he addressed Mr. Ban’s delegation at the Apostolic Palace. But in an informal meeting with Mr. Ban and his advisers, Francis shifted the discussion to the environment and how environmental degradation weighed heaviest on the poor.

The encyclical—which has since been formally issued–includes an economic critique of the way in which global capitalism, while unquestionably helping lift millions out of poverty, has also facilitated both the exploitation of nature and vast inequities among people—even people living in the same countries. That message makes the encyclical a distinctly political document, no matter how forcefully the Vatican insists that it is intended to be a statement of theology, not politics.

The ultimate effect of the Pope’s encyclical is as impossible to predict at this point as is the ultimate outcome of climate change, but the Pontiff has raised two issues that are seldom recognized in the heated debates over climate policy: the interrelated nature of the policy decisions we make and the social and economic systems we institutionalize; and the wildly disparate impact of those decisions and systems on those who are “differently situated,” as lawyers might put it.

The term “privilege” is usually connected to a descriptor like “white” or “male,” but we might also consider what privilege means for other kinds of diversity in the context of global climate change. We also tend to think of poverty as the absence of money and material goods, but poverty includes many other deficits, including an individual’s ability to withstand or recover from incidents of violent weather (Katrina, anyone?), to cope with economic changes and job losses linked to climate change, and eventually, the means to move away from newly uninhabitable locations.

Viewed in this way, “privilege” may mean having access to the resources needed to deal with economic and ecological upheavals, and “poverty” may describe those whose life choices are far more dramatically limited.

Whatever else the encyclical does or does not accomplish, it illuminates an underappreciated characteristic of inequality—susceptibility to disparate impact.


  1. “The term “privilege” is usually connected to a descriptor like “white” or “male,” ”

    Or, as applies in 2015, “female” or “minority.”

  2. Gopper, as an angry old white man you have absolutely NO IDEA what it is to be a female. We are still treated as second class citizens in this country. Privilege does NOT exist for us. However, I have enjoyed watching angry old white men like you complain about losing some of your power and privilege over the past few decades and I look forward to watching this loss of power continue.

  3. The encyclical was juxtaposed to the recent report concerning the overuse of groundwater around the planet. Water consumption has apparently reached a level where it has disrupted the water cycle – maybe so much water is tied up in human protoplasm that the volume available to recharge the aquifers is insufficient. The Pope makes some valid points and offers some solid insights about the impact of the operation of capitalism on humanity as a whole. If he wanted to get wildly courageous, he would take a stand against the unchecked birth rate that is driving greater consumption – more water, more food, more housing, more of everything necessary for a reasonable quality of life. Not to undercut the Pope, but the church should start to recognize how its dogma has been (at least partially) responsible for the problems he describes. There are just too many people and diminishing resources available to support them.

  4. Give it a rest, Nancy. How long has it been since you applied for a job?

    At every HR department or university admissions committee, White males go to the bottom of the pile, and women, particularly minority women, get first crack at every job or college slot.

    This has been the case in HR since about 1996, colleges earlier than that.

    Men are increasingly being displaced into the manual trades, while office buildings become increasingly staffed by women.

  5. The pope adds an important perspective. The economic and survival of poor people is hit first in this climate change scenario, with the wealthy being able to protect themselves until the disaster creeps up on the whole civilization. We are all connected, and the most vulnerable provide the early warning of the disaster that will fall on us all. We always hear about “trickle down”, but this is a “trickle up” way to understand it.

  6. I’m with daleb. Population growth must be addressed first and foremost before any changes to the way mankind lives have a chance to be effective.

  7. @Gopper. I don’t see anything in the labor statistics that support your statements. What is your source?

  8. Pope Francis is forcing the world to confront uncomfortable issues and for the right reasons. Far too often, private and public decision-makers forget or worse yet, exploit the poor and middle class. When disparities become too great, governments and wealth fall.

    When the earth is scorched, water and food will become reasons for war. No one will be secure. Why do we never learn that what diminishes some ultimately diminishes us all?

  9. Gopper, there you go – asserting Your opionions as if they are facts. You offered no source for any statistics to prove your “assumptions”. They are just your opionions and only that. You are still speaking as an angry old white man who is very angry that his position of power has been downgraded. Your statements are VERY INACCURATE. You seem to have the distinct ability to completely ignore the “FACT” that women earn some 30% less than men. Oh, and even though I am caucasian I totally believe the factually based published statistics that black men still earn less than white men.
    Gopper – YOU need to give it a rest and just accept that you no longer have all of the power that you enjoyed for decades. Power that you never should have had in the first place.

  10. Daleb says, in part: ” ….maybe so much water is tied up in human protoplasm that the volume available to recharge the aquifers is insufficient.” Not quite sure what that means, but if it’s some kind of scientific pronouncement that we have a water shortage because we have too many human beings on the planet, and the volume of water tied up in their cells is causing the problem, I think someone needs to do some calculating: World population times volume of water in the average human being. How much is that comparatively, Daleb?

  11. Gopper World is a mess and he doesn’t like being called into account for it.

    I am in awe at Pope Francis’ efforts. It renews my faith in religion as a union of sorts for the down trodden. Those tread upon by the fortunate and powerful and privileged which always morphs into those entitled. Power corrupts.

    I only wish that his predecessors had not put him in a position to deny the necessity of birth control as a solution.

    One thing that I hope his brilliant effort will promote is serious discussion on if not Capitalism, what? An effort to not throw out the baby with the bath water. One reason is that the tendency among oligarchs will be to feed their flock the pablum that the only alternative is socialism.

    What needs to be addressed is a more comprehensive plan that resolves take, make, waste. How to divide among all of the owners of earth’s bounty what is made in a way that respects all life’s, including future life, claim to the resources of earth, including the disposal of waste. What we think of as jobs and money are secondary to sustainability. They are tools to be considered not idols to be worshipped.

    Pope Francis is continuing the dispute between Jesus and the money changers in the temple. He does so as the leader of a large tribe but this is important, a large international tribe. Of many nations. He is forming a political-religous alliance with the United Nations to take over the world for its occupants not its aristocracy.

    This is the beginning of the great revolution to avoid the bloody revolution that is also beginning.

    All Faiths, including the nones, should join the United Nations Papal army to defeat armies.

    We need to be the first to live by what we share not how we are different.

    Hope has taken a giant leap forward.

    Centuries from now the world will celebrate the Pope’s role in the unification of religion, science, business, and politics.

  12. Population certainly is an issue in world poverty, but given the fact that the world’s two most populous countries are China and India, I don’t know that a largely ignored Catholic dogma has any relevance. I also don’t see any evidence that Catholics are the major force behind US population policy inside or outside the country.

  13. Nancy, while I appreciate and agree with your argument, you have some anger in this dog fight, too. How do you know that Gopper is an “angry old white man who is very angry that his position of power has been downgraded”? Maybe she is middle-aged or young and has never had any power or position? I suspect that there are a number of “old white men” who share anger with the host of this blog who has, herself, said that she is well past 30.

  14. @ Don Sherfick. I said maybe. I guess we could calculate that the average human weighs about 100 lbs; 92% of that is water. Times 7 billion people. It’s a large number. Anyway, the point was that with more people we need more food and energy which consume more water and at some point, we exceed the carrying capacity of our system by disrupting the system which recharges aquifers.

  15. @William. The Pope opened the can; he should publicly acknowledge that birth control is part of an acceptable strategy for addressing climate change. The US has no population policy, that I can discern and I have an opinion about that.

  16. Humans can be very creative, but we can be very destructive also. For millions of years Mammalian Mega-Fauna: Wooly Rhinos, Mastodons and Mammoths adapted and survived, the arrival of modern humans coincided with their extinction. There are other animals that could not withstand human contact: Passenger Pigeon, and the Dodo bird just to name two. The American Bison was hunted to near extinction. Today we have the near extinction of rhinos in Africa.

    Clear cutting of forests, mountain top mining, fracking, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and recently California all play part in humanities greed and total indifference to our environment. We can only wonder at what the people of Easter Island thought when the last trees were chopped down, and they were doomed to be trapped on the island without wood to construct their boats for either fishing or be able to leave.

  17. The world has a fixed amount of water and every drop is recycled continuously. None is lost. Thus all water “shortage” is regional. In some places we are consuming more than is replenished. This is one of the realities of global warming. There are places on earth wonderful for growing food. But that requires many things. Water, sunshine, flat fertile soil, few people per acre. If our fossil fuel waste moves the replenishing rain elsewhere that is short of some of those necessities starvation in that region is a given.

  18. Interesting thing to consider. Why has the international government, the UN, been the only government in the world capable of dealing realistically with climate change?

  19. “Gopper, there you go – asserting Your opionions as if they are facts. You offered no source for any statistics to prove your “assumptions”.”

    Like Sheila did, you nitwit? I just changed the words in her sentence.

    She was being insensitive and inflammatory, and I called her on it.

  20. “Gopper, there you go – asserting Your opionions as if they are facts. You offered no source for any statistics to prove your “assumptions”.”

    Like Sheila did? I just changed the words in her sentence.

    She was being insensitive and inflammatory, and I called her on it. You didn’t.

  21. Nitwit ?

    A Nitwit is a person who disagrees with our personal point of view ?

  22. The human body, 92% Water …

    I’m having visions of Frank Herbert’s Dune
    In 50 years we will all be waring “Still Suits”
    and Funeral Directors will have devised a
    way to extract the 92% water from Human

  23. In 2016, the Carlsbad Desalination plant will enter service
    producing 50 million gallons per day using Reverse Osmosis.

    A process which works on the 2 – 1 theory. Thus, in producing
    50 million gallons of fresh water, its intake will be 100 Million
    Gallons of Sea Water. The effluent will be 50 million gallons
    and the salinity of the effluent will be doubled.

    Unfortunately, the effluent does not readily mix back into the
    ocean and it creates what are called “dead zones” in the ocean
    where marine life cannot be sustained.

    Will the next natural resource we ravage and destroy, be the oceans ?

  24. Red, that extraction is called decomposing or rotting in some circles. All life is a reservoir of carbon and water. Taking them in is called growing. Giving them back is called dying.

    Fossil fuels took in 300+ million years ago but were prevented from giving back until we burn them. So anthropogenic global warming is recreating the atmospheric greenhouse gas carbon load of the times that they existed. 60 million years of carbon extraction returned in 200 years. We are recreating pre dinosauer days.

  25. One other thing Red. Desalinization does exactly what you described but there is “the rest of the story”. The water desalinated gets used on land by us, then gets returned to the ocean as effluent by us or as evaporation and rain by Mother Earth. Eventually.

    The amount of pure water on earth stays exactly the same.

  26. I’m sure as time rolls on (Eventually) desalination will be more
    and more efficient. Effluent from the plants may need to be
    piped to the deep water trenches in the oceans. Thus, adding
    enormous cost to an already costly process. Electric usage for
    this type of plant is currently very high. It requires high pressure
    pumping systems to force the water through the RO membranes
    and various banks of pre-filters etc.

  27. Gopper is a plant in this otherwise rational discussion, a shill, and if he/she existed, he/she would be a zero (0). He/She is having a ball with this, and we’re giving him/her ‘way too much of the attention that he/she is not getting elsewhere.

  28. Separating dissolved salts from water is easy to do but inherently energy intensive. If it has to be done as the least expensive means to grow adequate food as a replacement for relying on nature’s way, compromised by fossil fuel burning, using sun and wind to evaporate water then give it back as rain on land that has all of the other requisites for growing, so be it. It just means less energy for other things. Like transportation and air conditioning.

    Our fantasy of unlimited energy was always a dream. Now we’re waking up.

    Adding the Catholic Church to the UN is part of the great awakening. The last to awaken will be American conservatives seduced by oligarchs. But when their choice is wake up or go extinct I think that they will choose survival.

  29. I grew up in the Baptist church, and I love this pope, too.
    He stirs things up and tries to make the church more people friendly and inclusive. I especially appreciate his interest in raising conditions for the poor.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think he will do much for women’s issues. You aren’t likely to see me cross the threshold of a any church that uses the Bible as a tool to oppress women and minorities. That includes the Baptist church as well.

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