Pontificating About NEPA

The Pope’s encyclical gives a big thumbs’ up to environmental impact assessment.

Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical on the environment has (justly) received a lot of media attention.  The Guardian characterized it as casting blame for our environmental crises on the indifference of the high and mighty.

While some facet or another (it was 180 pages!) predictably rankled conservative Americans, the more interesting question is what effect it will have globally.  Catholicism may be a shrinking phenomenon compared to its first two millennia, catholicmapbut that hardly makes it a small phenomenon worldwide.  As the graphic from the Pew Forum on Religion illustrates, between the Americas and Europe, Catholics will be pivotal in global energy and environmental politics for generations to come.

At ¶ 183 the Pope had this to say about environmental impact assessment:

Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety. Economic returns can thus be forecast more realistically, taking into account potential scenarios and the eventual need for further investment to correct possible undesired effects. A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders, who can offer a variety of approaches, solutions and alternatives. The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest. We need to stop thinking in terms of “interventions” to save the environment in favour of policies developed and debated by all interested parties. The participation of the latter also entails being fully informed about such projects and their different risks and possibilities; this includes not just preliminary decisions but also various follow-up activities and continued monitoring. Honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political discussions; these should not be limited to the issue of whether or not a particular project is permitted by law.

To untrained (unindoctrinated) eyes like mine, this reads like a pretty hearty endorsement of the values animating NEPA—albeit with norms on consensus-building, participatory equality, and honesty that are, alas, somewhat estranged from NEPA as it’s been implemented.

Pope Francis, the first non-European Pope in about 1,300 years and the first ever from the Americas or the Southern Hemisphere, has made poverty a core focus for his papacy.  Climate change and a host of other environmental crises will, of course, impact the poor more brutally than it will the rich.  Here’s hoping the Pope’s words are taken to heart.

{Image: Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires}

I teach environmental, natural resources, and administrative law at Penn State Law. Before teaching I was an enforcement lawyer at U.S. EPA. Along the way I've done work for environmental nonprofits and written a fair bit about NEPA.
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