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The Pope Needs to Change the Climate on Contraception

06/17/2015 11:03 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

It is very likely that Pope Francis will issue an encyclical Thursday that will endorse the scientific consensus that the earth is warming and that this change in climate is caused in large part by greenhouse gases generated by human activity. One cheer for the pope! All things considered, it obviously is a good thing that the pope recognizes the reality of climate change.

Unfortunately, when it comes to proposing remedies for the problem, the pope ignores one of the principal underlying causes, not just for global warming, but for other looming ecological disasters.

The pope will apparently recommend reduction in the use of fossil fuels. Sure, yes, that will help and virtually everyone agrees that should be done. Of course, how to bring about this reduction in fossil fuels without adverse economic consequences is a subject of much debate, and here, apparently, the pope has nothing to offer but nostrums. Exhortations to lead a simpler life and a call for richer nations to assist poorer nations in the transition away from fossil fuels sound more like wishful thinking than practical solutions.

There is one very practical measure, immediately realizable and eminently feasible that is, as it were, staring the pope right in the face: The pope should not only end the Catholic Church's morally absurd and repugnant opposition to contraception, but should urge all families to engage in responsible family planning.

Reducing population growth would have a substantial positive effect on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. One persuasive scientific analysis indicates that reducing population growth could help achieve 37 percent to 41 percent of the targeted reduction in emissions by the end of the century. This paper also pointed out that "there is a substantial unmet need for family planning and reproductive health services in many countries."

But a dangerously warming climate is not the only adverse effect resulting from substantial increases in population. Just yesterday, a study was released indicating that the majority of the globe's largest aquifers were rapidly depleting. "The aquifers under the most stress are in poor, densely populated regions, such as northwest India, Pakistan and North Africa" according to the report. In January of this year, eighteen scientists published a paper in the journal Science, which indicated that human societies had already caused four of nine "planetary boundaries" to be crossed, with the other five under threat. (The four crossed boundaries relate to the extinction rate for plant and animal species, the contamination of oceans through runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus (from fertilizers), climate change resulting from the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and deforestation.) Crossing these boundaries threatens to destroy the stability of our environment and with it, the sustainability of human life (not to mention other forms of life).

We are over seven billion people now, with many more on the way. Even if we reduce consumption of fossil fuels, we will still be drinking water, using fertilizers to increase crop yields to feed ourselves, and cutting down forests to create fields in which to raise these crops. Substantially more people very likely will result in increasing use of our natural resources and increased damage to the environment from that use.

No, I don't have a problem when the pope endorses scientific findings. But before the pope lectures us on our moral responsibilities with respect to the environment, he should take a hard look at himself and his Church. The Church's morally indefensible stand against contraception has caused much harm already and threatens to cause even more serious harm in the future. Removing the Catholic Church's opposition to contraception will help the environment much more than telling everyone to ride bicycles.