Since his ascension in 2013, Pope Francis has rebelliously wielded the power of the papacy in new and groundbreaking ways. But in early June, he may have embraced his most important cause yet, going all-in on arresting climate change.
Inviting some 50 CEOs of major oil and gas companies to the Vatican, the Pope called out the hydrocarbon industry: “Civilization requires energy. But energy use must not destroy civilization!” He added that climate change is “a challenge of epochal proportions…even more worrying is the continued search for new fossil fuel reserves, whereas the Paris agreement clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground.”
The Pope’s cause is unusual for a spiritual leader but well timed and apt for the office and the man: he is a champion, above all, of the developing world, where the largest numbers of Christians live and where energy justice is at the root of the challenge of economic development. In doing so, Francis’ embrace of the issue of climate change raises deeper questions about the relationship between energy and religion.
The Pope and energy leadership
British and French leaders used the three Cs – Christianity, commerce, and civilization – to justify colonization in the nineteenth century. The Pope’s use of the term “civilization,” therefore, harkens to this past. But it also underscores how energy has permitted unprecedented levels of economic and population growth. Fossil fuels were drivers of colonization.
Throughout the past two centuries, however, the developing world has not benefitted from the riches of fossil fuels. While oil and gas companies have harvested unfathomable riches, the developing world now faces both the worst affects of climate change and the largest obstacles to assuring access to reliable, sustainable energy sources. According to the World Bank, the per-capita consumption of energy in Francis’ homeland of Argentina was 3,052 kWh in 2014. This was 0.6% of the average Icelander (53,832 kWh) but 76 times more than the average Haitian (40 kWh)!
It is unsurprising that the first non-European Pope in over a millennium is taking oil and gas companies to task. Part of this is Francis simply standing up for his constituents and brethren. Christianity has slowly lost adherents in North America and Europe since the twentieth century, but is forecast to attract more in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the coming decades.
Over 1 one billion people in the developing world do not have access to reliable power supplies, handcuffing their ability to grow economically. See the Democratic Republic of Congo for a country with untapped growth potential but anemic levels of access to energy. Cheap, small-scale renewables can help countries grow while avoiding environmental degradation. They can, moreover, leapfrog infrastructure investments in power lines, just as cellular phones did landlines.
Jesuit values and energy justice
It is also unsurprising that the first-ever Jesuit Pope is concerned about climate change and energy justice. The Jesuits have long been rebels who have sought to strengthen the Church from within through education and social justice. (Full disclosure, I went to a Jesuit high school and received my doctorate from a Jesuit university.)
Energy justice and social justice are deeply interconnected, not simply because poorer, developing countries do not have reliable supplies. Historically, fossil fuels have created enormous inequalities of wealth, both within countries themselves and between them. Oil fueled the Second World War as well as several conflicts in the Middle East during the Cold War. Producing oil and gas, meanwhile, requires large capital expenditure, ensuring that the rich get richer by their continued use. The resource curse also keeps autocratic regimes in power with concealable revenues that can be used to bribe, cajole, and strong-arm, and zaps entrepreneurial spirit from other sectors of developing economics.
Renewables, on the other hand, are inherently more democratic because they do not require massive upfront investment and can be localized. They are also less likely to prompt resource wars because they are not finite and cannot deliver elephantine revenues to autocrats.
Francis understands that social justice starts with energy justice. Reliable power permits people to engage with the world and furnishes economic and intellectual freedom. By championing the cause to reduce fossil fuels – on Earth Day in April, 35 Catholic institutions pledged to divest of fossil fuel investments – the Pope is arguing for energy and social justice.
Energy and religion: allies or foes?
Energy and religion are, in one respect, two sides of the same coin. They each provide power and dignity to human beings on a grand scale. Yet they also compete and start from a different set of assumptions about what powers the world. This competition suggests a correlation, albeit an improvable one, between the increase in energy wealth (and therefore economic growth) and the decline of religiosity in the developed world. Why believe in a higher power, after all, when you can tap into an earthly one?
Francis clearly does not see energy as a zero-sum game. He recognizes that oil and gas allow modern society to function and flourish, lifting billions out of poverty. The industry, he acknowledges, has taken some steps to reduce methane leaks and other emissions in recent years. He is not, in other words, pitting energy against religion. Instead, he is seeking a synthesis between clean energy and Christianity, anchored in the developing world.
Oil and gas CEOs were wise to take the pilgrimage to Rome and attempt to join the Pope’s synthesis. The energy transition is no rebellion or aberration. By injecting energy justice into the equation, the Pope is hastening it.