On Friday, Pope Francis met with a group of energy and investment executives to make an appeal for carbon pricing and a “radical energy transition” to renewable energy to address the “undeniable reality of the climate crisis.” The meeting is part of a multiyear dialogue organized by the University of Notre Dame and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
“For too long we have collectively failed to listen to the fruits of scientific analysis,” Francis said on Friday. “Faced with a climate emergency, we must take action accordingly, in order to avoid perpetrating a brutal act of injustice towards the poor and future generations.”
Unfortunately, the Holy Father disregards the fruits of scientific analysis that demonstrate how the use of more renewable energy and policies like carbon taxes actually raise energy prices and run counter to his goal of reducing poverty in the developing world.
Instead, he has chosen to believe the popular myth that renewable energy is the only viable option for reversing the harm being inflicted on nature and humanity. In reality, fossil fuels have been the most effective at addressing these concerns.
The movement over the past 200 years away from diffuse and unreliable wind, solar, water, and bioenergy and toward abundant and energy-dense fossil fuels has enabled the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. But there are still nearly a billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity and billions more who face some form of energy poverty. The policies endorsed by the Pope would restrict access to the energy resources that have brought so much prosperity.
The impact of energy prices on the poor is felt even in wealthy countries like the United States. The shale revolution, which has cut the price of oil and natural gas by more than half, has been found to have averted about 11,000 winter deaths annually through lower heating costs. Americans spent nearly $300 billion less on energy in 2017 than they did in 2008, and the poor benefit the most from these savings.
The physical and economic challenges of powering our entire energy system with renewable energy — low energy density, geographic limitations, and extreme variability just to name a few — are myriad and plainly obvious to energy researchers. Yet these realities are somehow overlooked by the Pope and others who are promoting this “energy transition.”
It is also rarely mentioned that accessing renewable energy resources will require a profound increase in our footprint on the land and have significant environmental consequences. As renowned energy researcher Vaclav Smil points out, “these new energy infrastructures would have to be spread over areas ten to a thousand times larger than today’s infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction, combustion and electricity generation.”
The Pope would do well to listen to Smil and to encourage Catholics such as myself to do the same. We should also be wary of the doomsday predictions of the climate change “consensus.”
Our resiliency to natural disasters has increased dramatically over the past century: Deaths from climate-related catastrophes such as floods, droughts, and storms are down 97% since 1920. Regardless of how the climate changes over the next 100 years, our collective wealth and access to energy will enable us to adapt to it.
The Pope is right when he says in his encyclical “Laudato Si” (On Care for Our Common Home) that “scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity” and that we must reject ideas that equate happiness with consumption. But we should not conflate our personal choices with government policies that restrict our ability to access the energy that billions of people depend on for their survival. Nor should we reflexively reject technological advances such as fracking that save lives and increase our collective prosperity.
Pope Francis would be well served to set aside the politics of climate change and instead promote the use of all our energy resources to reduce poverty and increase human flourishing around the world.