Pope Francis: Substitute Fossil Fuels with Renewable Energy

Guest Blog | June 19, 2015 | Climate Change

This post is part of the “Prelude to Paris” series highlighting updates and analysis on international climate negotiations in the lead up to the United Nations climate change conference – the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) — to be held in Paris this December. Other posts in the series are available here.

After months of anticipation, Pope Francis has released his encyclical,  Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. Encyclicals are letters written by a pope to the other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. In his 184-page letter, Pope Francis touched on many environmental issues facing the planet today: climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, animal husbandry, genetically modified organisms and other “aspects of the present ecological crisis.” The encyclical’s title (which means “Praised Be”) is inspired after Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures. St. Francis’s life of simplicity and cooperation with nature is the embodiment of Pope Francis’ encyclical (after all, Pope Francis chose his name after St. Francis).

According to Pope Francis, it was necessary to discuss the breadth of environmental issues because “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” And indeed, substantial portions of the encyclical discuss the connection between environmental damage and the disproportionate impact such destruction has on people living in poverty. In a press conference yesterday, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, DC, noted that Pope Francis focused on society because “The starting point is the dignity of the human person as part of God’s plan in all of creation.”

In order to solve the multitude of environmental problems, Pope Francis did not limit his audience to Catholics only. Instead, he states, “I wish to address every person living on this planet.” Pope Francis incorporates quotes from a variety of bishops from around the world, and even praises non-Catholic religious leaders, to develop a foundation of global unity. Instead of relying on an overly theological discussion, and in order to speak to a truly universal audience, Pope Francis begins his encyclical with a lengthy review of scientific evidence. The evidence he presents all points to the fact that, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

According to the encyclical, society has created a “throwaway culture” heavily entrenched and dependent on overconsumption. “This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings,” Pope Francis writes.

Pope Francis stops short of offering direct policy recommendations for resolving the ecological crisis, noting that for “…many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion..” He goes further to state, “Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community.” However, he also states that faith and religion have a role to play in discussing the ecological crisis. “Science and technology are not neutral,” Pope Francis states. Because they leave little room “for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things,” faith and religion can provide another avenue for dialog. Specifically, faith and religion can provide a moral and ethical framework for scientific, economic, political and technological progress.

One theme throughout Laudato Si is the juxtaposition of the “tyranny over creation” (anthropocentrism) versus a cooperation and cultivation of nature. As stated by Pope Francis, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” Fossil fuels including “coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay,” are specifically identified as forms of tyranny over creation. In essence, fossil fuels reinforce a consumerist mindset of prideful, greedy and gluttonous (yet, false) control over nature – that humanity can extract and consume fossil fuels on our own terms (some would say, “dispatchable generation”). Alternatively, Pope Francis’ call to a cooperative (fraternal) relationship with creation highlights potential solutions to fossil fuels; “Fraternal love can only be gratuitous…That is why it is possible to love our enemies. This same gratuitousness inspires us to love and accept the wind, the sun and the clouds, even though we cannot control them.” The variability (some would say “intermittency”) of renewable energy provides an opportunity for humanity to exercise temperance, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility with nature. Faithful Catholics may recognize the juxtaposition of mortal sins versus holy virtues.

Even though Pope Francis explicitly states that the “Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” he does provide a few glimpses into ways to resolve the ecological crisis. For instance, he states, “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.” Also, mass transit gets a special mention with his statement that, “Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.” But Pope Francis is no wild-eyed idealist. In reference to the use of natural gas instead of coal, he states, “Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.” Throughout the encyclical are these short asides of non-policy, policy recommendations.

Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si, in part, to prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference this winter in Paris (COP21). As the world prepares for COP21, Laudato Si can provide a firm moral grounding for delegates and attendees: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?… Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. ”

You can read the full text of Laudato Si, here.

RECAP: SACE previously wrote a blog entitled, “Sneak Peek at Pope Francis’ Environmental Encyclical,” based heavily on the previous work of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Of course, we didn’t cover the breadth and depth of issues in the encyclical, but for a blog, if we had to grade ourselves, we’d say we nailed it. 

ADDITIONAL RECAP: In 2013, when Pope Francis became pope, SACE asked the question, “Is Pope Francis the New Green Pope?” Our answer at the time was, “Pope Francis has exhibited at least a few attributes of his predecessor, as well as his namesake St. Francis, that make a fairly strong case that he may be a Green Pope in the making.”  We think we nailed that, too. 

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