“Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization,” Pope Francis tells oil and gas executives

June 10, 2018
Adapted from Gerard O’Connell June 09, 2018
Pope Francis meets with energy executives in Rome. Photo courtesy of Vatican Media.
Pope Francis meets with energy executives in Rome. Photo courtesy of Vatican Media.

“Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization,” Pope Francis told top executives of the world’s main petrol, natural gas and energy-linked investment companies when he met them in the Vatican on June 9. He appealed to them to use their “creativeness and professional expertise” in “the service of two great needs in today’s world: the care of the poor and the environment.”

“The energy question has become one of the principle challenges facing the international community,” he told participants when he met them at the end of the June 8-9 conference held behind closed doors at the Casina Pio IV of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The way we meet this challenge will determine our overall quality of life and the real possibility either of resolving conflicts in different areas of our world or on account of grave environmental imbalances and lack of access to energy, providing them with new fuel to destroy social stability and human lives,” he said.

His audience included the CEOs of BP ( Bob Dudley), Exxon Mobil (Darren Woods), Eni (Claudio Descalzi), Equinor, Norways’ state-owned energy company ( Eldar Saetre), the chief executive of investment giant BlackRock (Larry Fink) and Ernest Moniz, the U.S. Energy Secretary under President Obama, as well as two facilitators—Carolyn Woo (formerly of CRS) and Professor Leo Burke of Notre Dame university.

The conference was organized by the Vatican’s dicastery for Service of Integral Human Development and the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business.

In his three-page speech, Pope Francis recalled that “today, more than ever before, vast areas of our life depend on energy” but still “more than a billion people lack access to electricity.”

He said the challenge is “to find ways of ensuring the immense supply of energy required to meet the needs of all, while at the same time developing means of using natural resources that avoid creating environmental imbalances resulting in deterioration and pollution gravely harmful to our human family, both now and in the future.”

He emphasized the need “to devise a long-term global strategy able to provide energy security and, by laying down precise commitments to meet the problem of climate change, to encourage economic stability, public health, the protection of the environment and integral human development.”

Pope Francis repeated the call, first made in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si,’” “for an “energy transition” aimed at averting disastrous climate changes that could compromise the well-being and future of the human family and our common home.”  Laudato Si’ paragraph 165 calls for transition off of fossil fuels “without delay”.

While this “a challenge of epochal proportions,” he said it is also “an immense opportunity to encourage efforts to ensure fuller access to energy by less developed countries, especially to diversify energy sources and promote the sustainable development of renewable forms of energy.”

He reminded them that “the challenges facing us are interconnected” and that “if we are to eliminate poverty and hunger, as called for by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the more than one billion people without electricity today need to gain access to it.” He insisted, however, that “that energy should also be clean, by a reduction in the systematic use of fossil fuels.”

Pope Francis recalled that in December 2015, 196 Nations negotiated and adopted the Paris Agreement, “with a firm resolve to limit the growth in global warming to below 2° [celsius], based on preindustrial levels, and, if possible, to below 1.5° [celsius]”

Today, however, he said, “some two-and-a-half years later, carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases remain very high.” But what is “even more worrying is the continued search for new fossil fuel reserves, whereas the Paris Agreement clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground.”

He did not mention, however, another disturbing fact that everyone was aware of: President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. The pope, the Holy See as well as governments around the world consider that decision as a major blow to combating climate change.

Given the present scenario, Francis said, “we need to talk together—industry, investors, researchers and consumers—about transition and the search for alternatives. Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!

He said it is essential to come up with “an adequate energy ‘mix’ for combating pollution, eliminating poverty and promoting social equality.”Francis acknowledged that “progress has been made” in this field thanks to efforts by the oil and gas companies. He commended them for “developing more careful approaches to the assessment of climate risk and adjusting their business practices accordingly” and noted too that “global investors are refining their investment strategies to take into account environmental and sustainability questions” and “new approaches to ‘green finance’ are beginning to emerge.”

He emphasized that “political decisions, social responsibility on the part of the business community and criteria governing investments—all these must be guided by the pursuit of the long-term common good and concrete solidarity between generations.” He warned that “there should be no room for opportunistic and cynical efforts to gain small partial results in the short run, while shifting equally significant costs and damages to future generations.”

The pope emphasized that “there are also ethical reasons for moving towards global energy transition with a sense of urgency.” While “everyone is affected by the climate crisis,” he said, “the effects of climate change are not evenly distributed.”

He reminded them that “it is the poor who suffer most from the ravages of global warming, with increasing disruption in the agricultural sector, water insecurity, and exposure to severe weather events.”

“Many of those who can least afford it are already being forced to leave their homes and migrate to other places that may or may not prove welcoming,” Pope Francis said. “Many more will need to do so in the future.”

He told the oil and gas executives that “the transition to accessible and clean energy is a duty that we owe towards millions of our brothers and sisters around the world, poorer countries and generations yet to come.” But said “decisive progress on this path cannot be made without an increased awareness that all of us are part of one human family, united by bonds of fraternity and solidarity.” He told them that our interdependent world “is calling us to devise and implement a long-term common project that invests today in order to build for tomorrow.” 

He noted that “unlimited faith in markets and technology has led many people to believe that shifts in economic or technological systems will be sufficient to remedy the current ecological and social imbalances,” but, he made clear, the facts contradict this becausethe demand for continuous economic growth has led to severe ecological and social consequences, since our current economic system thrives on ever-increasing extraction, consumption and waste.”

As he has stated clearly in “Laudato Si,’” so too today Francis asserted that “the problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths in meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations.”

He emphasized that “renewal calls for a new form of leadership, and such leaders must have a clear and profound realization that the earth is a single system and that humanity, likewise, is a single whole” and then went onto suggest that the oil, gas and investment executives could provide some of that greatly needed leadership.

He invited them to be “the core of a group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems.”

He encouraged them to take up this challenge saying they should see this “as the greatest leadership opportunity of all, one that can make a lasting difference for the human family, and one that can appeal to your boldest dreams and ideas.”