Pope Francis on Misplaced Safety Concerns: Where’s the Caution on Climate Change?


The chances of a U.S. citizen being killed by a terrorist are slimmer than being struck by lightning. That remains true even after the Paris massacre of last November 13th.  In fact, according to The Economist, the chances of dying at the hands of terrorists are actually one in twenty million. So you’re far more likely to die from a car accident, airplane crash, post-surgery complications, or from gun violence than from terrorism.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of millions dying from the effects of climate change is about 97 in 100. That figure refers to the percentage of climate scientists who tell us that human inaction on the climate front will result in disastrous, planet-wide catastrophe.  (By the way, 97% is about the same percentage as medical researchers who say that smoking causes cancer.)

And yet, in the wake of the recent Paris massacre, politicians call for absolute caution about the acceptance of refugees while siding with the 3% of scientists denying human responsibility for climate change.

On the refugee question, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama put it this way, “If there’s even the slightest risk that they’re not the kind of people that we wish them to be,” we must exclude Iraqi and Syrian refugees from our state.

And Bentley is not alone. At least 31 governors (almost all of them Republican) have expressed similar determination to prevent refugees from entering their states. Governor Greg Abbot of Texas said, “I will not roll the dice and take the risk on allowing a few refugees in simply to expose Texans to that danger” of some refugee committing a terrorist act. “Better safe than sorry,” adds Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who describes himself as “a devout Catholic.”

The Catholic reference is important, because the position of Pope Francis is exactly the reverse of the Republicans’ who overwhelmingly identify themselves as fervent Christians. The pope has called for opening doors to refugees from Syria and Iraq.  He has reminded believers that Jesus himself was a refugee from state violence and that his mother experienced the same terror suffered by Iraqis, Syrians, Somalians and others.

Meanwhile, in his landmark encyclical on climate change, Pope Francis urged extreme caution about climate change. There he quotes the 1992 Rio Declaration on the climate crisis:

“. . . (W)here there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” (186).

So who’s right, Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues or Pope Francis?

That is, given the 1 in 20 million chance of being killed by a terrorist on the one hand, and the near certainty of millions dying from human-induced climate change on the other, is the pertinent popular phrase Ryan’s “Better safe than sorry?  Or is it “Penny wise and pound foolish?”

Perhaps it is both.

Think about that for a minute.