Since his ascension in 2013, Francis has rebelliously wielded the power of the papacy in 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,” and that it was “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.
Civilization and its discontents
British and French leaders used the three Cs – Christianity, commerce, and civilization – to justify their colonization of the world in the nineteenth century. The Pope’s use of the term “civilization,” therefore, not only harkens to this past, but also underscores how energy has permitted unprecedented levels of economic and population growth. The advent of coal since 1820 and oil and gas in the twentieth century have been major drivers of modern civilization and went hand-in-hand with 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 roughly half of 1 percent of the amount that the average Icelander consumed (53,832 kWh), and still towers over what the average Haitian consumed (40 kWh)!
It is unsurprising, then, that the first non-European Pope in over a millennium is taking oil and gas companies to task and standing up for his constituents and brethren. Christianity has slowly lost adherents in North America and Europe since the twentieth century, but it 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 – not more fossil fuels – can help countries grow without destroying their environments and suffering from bad air and water. They can, moreover, deliver immediate power and 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 the issue of climate change, which is a problem at its heart of social justice. The Jesuits were founded in the sixteenth century on compassion for the poor and cut their teeth in this vein in Latin America, where they founded missionaries amidst great risk. Social justice is in the Jesuit DNA. (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 ideas, not simply because people in 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. Exploring for and exploiting oil and gas, meanwhile, requires large capital expenditure, ensuring that the rich get richer by their continued use. And finally, the resource curse keeps autocratic regimes in power with its concealable revenues that can be used to bribe, cajole, 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 whenever they want and have greater agency over their lives, in addition to enabling economic growth. 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, and acknowledges that the industry has taken some important steps to reduce methane leaks and other emissions in recent years. He is not trying to pit energy against religion. He is instead seeking a synthesis between energy and Christianity, anchored in the developing world, fueled by renewable energies and the cleaner, more limited use of fossil fuels.
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.