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‘The poor and the fragility of the planet’

It was really only a matter of time before Pope Francis would weigh in on issues surrounding the environment. His chosen namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, after all, was a lover of nature, and in his last days while he lay sick and dying, composed his most famous poem, “The Canticle of the Creatures,” which has the constant refrain, “All praise be yours”—“Laudato Si.” Which the Pope borrowed for the title of his encyclical, and which he also reproduced, in said letter. St. Francis’ 13th-century paean was to the Lord, for Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Mother Earth.

It may be of interest to the Reader that St. Francis was named patron saint of the environment in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, and Pope Francis refers to him (St. Francis) a number of times in the 246-paragraph, 180-page letter, which ends with two prayers: the first he shares with “all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator,” and the second is for “we Christians” (not just Catholic Christians, note) to ask “for inspiration to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus.” Not an exclusivist, our Pope. No wonder he is universally loved.

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Except by those, like the Heartland Institute, who pooh-pooh his efforts, saying that the encyclical devotes only a small percentage of its writing to the environment! Well, that’s because the Pope is trying to tie it all together. As he states, “I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.”

Given the current controversy about the attempt to build a coal-fired power plant in Palawan, with Gov. Pepito Alvarez on one side and civil society and the environmentalists (and former Puerto Princesa mayor Ed Hagedorn) on the other, and given the reported plans of the Philippine government to build 48 such plants in the Philippines, I searched the encyclical and found this: “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.”

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But the Pope also writes: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

That’s what Alvarez uses. In an interview with me that will be aired in two weeks, he says the coal-fired power plant is for the poor, while the environmentalists represent the elite. The other side, naturally, takes exception to this, and accuses him of being for big business, not for the poor. Thus the debate goes on. Whether the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will give DMCI (of Torre de Manila fame) the go-signal to put up the plant in Palawan is being awaited.

Certainly, however, considering the reputation that Palawan has of clean air, pristine blue waters, and the title “top island in the world” (Conde Nast), it seems unduly cavalier to put up a coal-fired power plant in that paradise when there are other options.

With respect to the reported Philippine plans to build 48 coal-fired power plants, excerpts from a recent New York Times interview of Dale Jamieson (DJ), author and professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, by Gary Gutting (GG), himself a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, should be enlightening. Here’s how the conversation about coal went:

DJ: Also, given the environmental and human costs entailed by the cycle of coal production and consumption, liberating ourselves from the use of coal is something we should do no matter what. The only people who could reasonably object are people who own coal companies or can’t see a life beyond being dependent on those people.

GG: Stopping the use of coal seems a radical step. Could you explain why you think it’s necessary?

DJ: The cycle of coal production and consumption is destructive at every stage. It involves ripping down mountaintops, polluting waterways and killing workers. When coal is burned to produce electricity, it produces pollution that kills more than 10,000 Americans each year, and more than a quarter million Chinese. In addition it does severe damage to fish, birds and waterways. And we haven’t even gotten to its contribution to climate change.

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Getting off coal will be difficult. Lots of things are difficult. Quitting smoking is difficult. Abolishing slavery was almost unimaginable for people living in those societies…

GG: Mightn’t the costs of giving up coal and of using alternative fuels (maybe nuclear) be greater than the costs of continuing to use coal? Is it possible to be reasonably certain about the effects of such a major change?

DJ: Coal seems to be an attractive fuel because there’s so much of it, and our economies are set up in such a way that most of the costs are borne downstream—not by those who produce and consume it. Once you start taking these externalities into account, coal starts losing economically even to other fossil fuels such as natural gas. The environmental and health costs of coal are so overwhelming that it’s not difficult to make the case for its elimination. The problem is distributional. Some people, including many poor people, gain short-term advantages from using coal. But distributional concerns are involved in all social policy decisions. The right response to these concerns is compensation, not inaction.

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TAGS: DENR, encyclical, environment, Laudato Si, palawan, Poor, Pope Francis
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