That’s Not Subsidiarity

That’s Not Subsidiarity August 22, 2018

With the convictions of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen topping the news, it may have slipped past many of us that the “Trump administration has moved to formally replace the Clean Power Plan, an environmental regulation that former President Barack Obama once lauded as the single-most important step America has ever taken to fight climate change.” [1] According to NPR, this “proposal, called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, would give individual states more authority to make their own plans for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.”

That, of course, will result in a variety of regulatory regimes. States where coal is an important part of the economy will likely have lighter restrictions than other places, as will states governed by those who seem to have their doubts that carbon dioxide is really a greenhouse gas. What does not seem to be of concern is that the states that have little or no restrictions on the use of coal will be able to bring adverse causality on states where the politicians care about the world their grandchildren will live in. CO2 emissions don’t respect state boundaries. And global warming is called that because it is global.

Subsidiarity is a good thing. It is an intrinsic part of Catholic social teaching.

“’Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them’.

On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (‘subsidium’) — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place.” [2]

But the proper application of subsidiarity is not a jurisdictional issue, much less an arbitrary one. It is an injustice “to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” But it is not an injustice to assign to the greater and higher association what the lesser and subordinate organizations cannot do. And because air pollution impacts places beyond the localities and states where it occurs, it must be regulated by an authority that transcends those boundaries.

The climate doesn’t just impact one state, or really even one nation. As Pope Francis pointed out in his encyclical Laudate si, the “climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.” (Ibid, §23) [3]

At the end of the day, even national legislation won’t be enough. This problem will only be solved, if at all, through the auspices of enforceable international treaties. But turning over regulation of coal-fired power plants to the states is exactly the wrong direction to go.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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  • Given that coal isn’t always a fossil fuel, and is in fact renewable energy (all you need to do is plant a forest and wait a few hundred years for the peat laid down every year to be compressed by the weight of the forest on top of it), I would say there is a lot that local governments CAN do about air pollution while regulating coal plants.

    Imagine a requirement that a coal plant can only be built in a forest, surrounded by twice the number of trees needed to suck the carbon out of the air than the coal plant produces.

    I think you are failing to see the possibilities here.

  • James Van Damme

    Coal is “renewable” over millions of years. Peat isn’t even renewable over a few hundred years; look at the vanishing bogs in the Burren in Ireland.

    Plant the trees then burn them (or make biobutanol or diesel fuel). Leave the coal in the ground. Pennsylvania can burn it as long as the acid rain doesn’t cross the NY border and kill our Adirondack forests (again).

  • They made the mistake of cutting down the trees in Ireland. Go to the renewed forests of Oregon, where we plant three trees for every tree cut down by state law, and you’ll see peat several feet deep.

  • TinnyWhistler

    He’s doing it to pander to his base in states like WV.

  • TinnyWhistler

    I’d be very interested to learn more about that since as far as I’ve ever learned, Sphagnum mosses make up most of the composition of peat. Are most of Oregon’s wetlands forested?

  • TinnyWhistler

    I’d be really interested to read more about that. Do you have a link that talks about the peat in Oregon forests and how long the peat takes to accumulate?

  • Most of the studies I’m aware of were more of pollen counts in the peat bogs:

  • TinnyWhistler

    Do you have a source for your claim that peat only takes a few hundred years to turn to coal? The “youngest” numbers I can find for lignite is still more than a million years. Does this young coal accumulate fast enough to be a replacement for the subbituminous and bituminous coal which has a much higher carbon % and currently makes up ~92% of the coal burned in the US? You have to burn more of it to get the same energy because it’s not as densely packed nor is it as “pure”.

    I did a quick back of the envelope calculation of the land use required, based on estimates I found from the IPCC for forest land use for carbon sequestration and 2016 numbers for average carbon produced from coal power and number of coal-fired power plants. It worked out to ~9,700 mi^2. That doesn’t look like much of an option unless we significantly reduce our dependence on coal for power.
    Feel free to check my math. I found the land use numbers here:
    Carbon emissions here:

    The problem is that ultimately coal seems to be about as renewable as helium is. Technically, it’s always renewing. Practically, that process takes waayyy too long to keep up with modern use of the resource.

  • TinnyWhistler

    “The foregoing sequence of events suggests that such bog formation along the Oregon Coast has been post-Pleistocene, but as in the case of other postglacial bogs in the Pacific Northwest it is not possible to estimate the period of postglacial time that elapsed before the accumulation of peat and other pollen-bearing sediments began.”

    It looks like the peat they’re studying was laid down sometime in the last 11k years with no mention of it having been harvested at any point. The deepest layer of peat mentioned in the paper is ~11m, which lines up nicely to 11k years at a rate of ~1mm per year, which is the rate of peat replenishment that I see cited most often.

    Also, it looks like these bogs are pretty standard in that most of the accumulated plant matter is Sphagnum moss, not tree remains: “The
    trees have as yet made only a limited invasion of the bog, and most specimens are stunted, indicating that hydrarch succession has not reached a stage favorable for rapid forest invasion”

    I was curious about this because peat usually only accumulates in wetlands, since the water helps to keep the plant matter from decaying like it normally would. I wasn’t aware that Oregon had many swamp forests. Are the trees being planted in the bogs? Once the ecological succession reaches a point where your standard trees (ie not mangroves or other shallow water trees) will grow happily, the bog isn’t a bog anymore and the conditions to lay down additional peat no longer exist. The peat that was already there is buried and will take a few million (unless you can find me a source saying it takes less time) years to turn to coal.

  • Oregon has both swamp and mountain forests, and used to, before global warming, get so much rain that we didn’t really get seasons here, so even the mountain forests had a tendency to be sponge like and moss ridden. Still are for the most part.

  • TinnyWhistler

    It sounds like wetland protection is still gonna be more important than tree planting, since the trees won’t sequester the carbon long-term if they rot where they fall. Even back in ’46, which is when the paper you linked is from, the trees weren’t growing where the peat was forming, but rather around the edges where the soil was more firm and less boggy and uses the pollen to show how the succession of the forest occurred over time.

    I’m still not convinced that we’re talking on the timescales of hundreds of years though, as even the paper you linked says, “Woahink Lake bog, which is almost twelve meters in depth, probably records all or most of postglacial forest succession, while Sand Lake bog, being only 4 meters deep, probably represents not more than half of post Pleistocene
    time,” seeming to indicate that they’re perfectly happy with a ~1mm a year, or millennium per meter deposition rate.