Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Pope Francis Kills 'Energy Poverty' Argument For Fossil Fuels


The leaked copy of a new papal encyclical on climate change and poverty caused quite a stir earlier this week, when the Italian publication L'Esspresso got hold of a draft version and published in full.

In the draft document, titled Laudato Si (Praised Be), Pope Francis meticulously lays out the moral, ethical and religious imperatives for environmental stewardship. In doing so, he's pulled the rug out from under the fossil fuel industry's key argument for its continued existence: saving the world from energy poverty.

When you've lost the Pope, you're on pretty shaky ground. But His Holiness' position on climate change is just the latest in a series of setbacks for the industry.

The "energy poverty" argument for fossil fuels

One of the most vocal proponents of the "energy poverty" argument is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who reportedly summed up the case for fossil fuels during a shareholder meeting in 11 words:
"What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?"
The idea is that only the fossil fuel industry can provide enough energy, at low enough prices, to help developing nations and underserved communities lift themselves out of poverty.

Tanzania provides a good example of that argument at work. Last summer Tanzania articulated a new energy policy that calls for introducing -- yes, introducing -- coal as a major energy source, as well as dramatically increasing its use of natural gas.

The new policy reflects the country's desperation to switch energy gears, partly because an ongoing drought has severely curtailed output from its hydropower plants. Here's the fossil fuel reasoning as explained in an article published by the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank known partly for its advocacy of nuclear energy and natural gas:

"Concerns about the climate are legitimate, but to raise its citizens out of poverty, the energy roadmap has prioritized raising per capita income in Tanzania from $640 to at least $3,000.

"... Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy."

Pope Francis, poverty and climate change

The leaked draft makes it clear that Pope Francis accepts the science behind climate change. He also knocks the pins out from the energy poverty argument simply by drawing attention to the fact that some of the most economically vulnerable communities in the world are also the ones most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Here is a key passage of the draft, connecting climate change and poverty, as cited in the Atlantic:

"In the draft, [Pope Francis] writes that the heaviest impacts of climate change 'will probably fall in the coming decades on developing countries. Many poor people live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to heating, and their livelihoods strongly depend on natural reserves and so-called ecosystem services, such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry.'”
From this perspective, far from providing a leg up to communities in distress, the fossil fuel industry is adding to their already considerable burdens.

That brings us right back around to the situation in Tanzania. Despite the increased interest in fossil fuels, the Tanzanian government does recognize that the loss of hydropower as a reliable energy source is directly linked to climate change:

"In Tanzania, the impacts of climate change are already evident in almost all sectors of the economy and throughout the country," reads the country's 2012 climate strategy.

"Given that Tanzania’s economic base is dependent on the climate sensitive natural resources, this makes the country’s economy extremely vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate. Some examples of such impacts include: severe and recurring droughts in recent years which have triggered economically devastating power crisis and massive deaths of livestock ..."

The fossil fuel industry loses another friend

The energy market in sub-Saharan Africa is a juicy target for the fossil fuel industry, but Pope Francis's stance on climate change could provide renewable energy advocates with a powerful grassroots ally in the region.

Our friends over at the Atlantic remind us that Africa is one of the two "constituencies" that Pope Francis has focused on (the other is South America). The number of Catholics in Africa is expected to rise dramatically by 2050 as part of a trend toward Christianity in the region.

Keep in mind that there are currently 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, and you can see that the forceful position staked out by Pope Francis creates a real headache for the fossil fuel industry.

Actually, with all due respect, Pope Francis is a little late to the game. The fossil fuel industry is already deep in the process of losing other allies.

The U.S. investment community, for one, is beginning to flee for the exits thanks in part to the efforts of green investor organizations like Ceres and As You Sow. Just this week, the Obama administration pushed things along by announcing that the president's $2 billion goal for private-sector clean energy investment has already been surpassed, leading to a new goal of $4 billion.

Consumers are also attracted to renewable energy. As detailed frequently on this site, that includes manufacturers, retailers and other businesses that are ditching fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, typically in the form of rooftop or ground-mounted solar installations on their premises. Nonprofits and academic institutions also feature prominently in this trend.

Entire governments are in on the action, too. One example in the U.S is the city of Burlington, Vermont, which recently achieved 100 percent renewable electricity. Earlier this month the state of Hawaii recently assigned itself a 100 percent renewable energy goal as a matter of law, not just aspiration.

It's also worth noting that Germany is in a good position to be the first major country to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

None of this is good news for the fossil fuel industry, and the new encyclical is already adding fuel to the fire. The leaked document available as of this writing is an unauthorized draft and not the official version, so it will be interesting to see how the industry and its remaining friends in the U.S. Congress react, once Pope Francis officially provides something to react to.

Image (cropped): Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, El Greco 1610, by freeparking via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey

More stories from Energy & Environment