Pope Francis's Misguided War on Fossil Fuels
It seems that Pope Francis has learned little since his 2015 papal encyclical calling on the world to fight climate change by limiting the use of modern technologies and fossil fuels. At a recent Vatican meeting he called many of the world’s leading oil company executives to the carpet. Francis told the executives they should shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources to fight “global warming.”
Pope Francis has myriad misguided beliefs about climate science, almost all of which he holds based on faith alone, as if they were holy writ. Even worse, his belief that society can transition from fossil fuels while reducing hunger and poverty is downright dangerous.
Despite the false claims of climate alarmists, fossil fuels have been a boon to the world. They supply affordable and abundant power for lighting, transportation, refrigeration, clean water, modern agriculture (including food delivery, storage, and protection from early decay and pests), indoor air-conditioning and heating, cooking, and the multitude of other technologies upon which modern societies are based. In attacking fossil fuels, Pope Francis is undermining the very resources and technologies most responsible for raising literally billions of people out of poverty. Coal, natural gas, and oil remain vital to increasing lifespans, decreasing infant mortality, and helping humans generally flourish.
In his brilliant book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein wrote, “Climate is no longer a major cause of death, thanks in large part to fossil fuels… Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion… looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is… we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe.”
Pope Francis and many other world leaders ignore this important fact, putting the lives of the world’s most impoverished people at risk.
When espousing his energy doctrine, Pope Francis would do well to adopt the humility and intellectual honesty of William Alsup, the presiding judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In a case in which oil companies are being sued by Oakland and San Francisco for causing climate harm, Alsup indicated if he is to consider the potential climate harms caused by the use of oil and gas, he must also examine the huge benefits their use has delivered. Alsup succinctly stated, “We need to weigh in the large benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels. There have been huge benefits.”
Below are a few facts Pope Francis should take to heart before he declares a twenty-first-century crusade against fossil fuels.
In a tutorial prepared for Judge Alsup by Joe Bast, director, and Peter Ferrara, Senior Fellow with The Heartland Institute, “The Social Benefit of Fossil Fuels,” they point out fossil fuels provided the energy that powered nearly all the technologies of the Industrial Revolution, as well as plastics, high-tech manufacturing, and mobile computer devices. From 1850 to 2010, fossil fuels spurred a 550 percent increase in the world’s population, and they helped dramatically reduce poverty and hunger. During this period, energy consumption increased fiftyfold and world per-capita energy consumption increased ninefold. Nearly all the world’s increased energy consumption came from fossil fuels.
Furthermore, fossil fuels are integral to mechanized farming (including gasoline- and diesel-powered tractors for planting, fertilizing, harvesting, storing, and for trucks to deliver crops to store shelves), irrigation systems, and in the creation of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that improve and expedite crop growth and prevent loss to weeds, insects, and other pests. Ironically, the natural resources environmentalists detest are actually responsible for the Green Revolution that saved billions of people from hunger during the twentieth century.
Besides increased food production and less global malnutrition, fossil fuels also allow for all the creature comforts that make life more enjoyable and improve health. For example, air-conditioning is powered by electricity -- primarily fueled by coal and natural gas. Pope Francis decried this technology in his papal encyclical, but air-conditioning has been an undeniable boon to public health everywhere it is widely used. Air-conditioning prevents thousands of premature deaths from heat-related illnesses each year, saving millions of lives over the past several decades. Refrigeration, also powered by fossil fuels, has kept food and medicine from spoiling, saving millions of additional lives. Almost all home appliances and small devices rely on electricity, and the standard of living has vastly improved because of these devices.
Contra Francis, we can’t afford to have the air-conditioning, refrigeration, lighting, and other technologies in our homes, super markets, businesses, and hospitals work only when the wind blows or the sun shines.
Moreover, fossil fuels are important before, during, and after natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. They reduce the number of people ultimately injured or killed by powering the helicopters, boats, military, police, and utility vehicles sent to restore order and electricity after such devastating events. They also power the vehicles and ambulances that evacuate people from disaster zones, and the semi-trailer trucks that deliver water, food, blankets, and other relief supplies to those who remain. When power lines go down in natural disasters, it is back-up generators, powered by diesel, natural gas, or liquid propane, not rooftop solar or wind turbines, that provide the electricity to apartment buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, and countless shelters.
Communication devices such as cell phones, computers, and radio equipment that keep people connected and informed on an everyday basis (especially during natural disasters) are all made from, manufactured with, and powered by oil and natural gas. Fossil fuels have transformed communication and increased information access on a level unlike anything humanity has witnessed before.
A world without fossil fuels would be a much more brutal place. Until Pope Francis understands the vital role fossil fuels have and should continue to play around the world, he should stick to saving souls rather than pontificating over peoples’ energy choices.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.