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Big Oil to Pope Francis: We Know What's Best for the World's Poor

Franco Origlia

Over the course of this year, Pope Francis will ramp up his foray into the politically charged debate for action on climate change. It begins unofficially with Tuesday’s Vatican summit, co-hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. This summer, Francis will publish his widely anticipated encyclical, a Catholic document that will examine man’s moral relationship with nature. 

Unlike the usual discussions of climate change as an economic and scientific issue, Francis conveys it as a moral cause. His past comments—that it “is man who has slapped nature in the face”—frame the issue in vivid and urgent terms. He's presented the fossil fuel industry with a challenge. Though they have a well-worn playbook for countering the economic, political, and scientific need for climate change action, industry is in relatively new territory with religion. How will they reply? 

Here's a hint: Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry and climate-change denial, will send its own “experts” to the Vatican to argue against the Pope's points in a side panel for reporters. These experts will no doubt parrot the usual Heartland line, distorting the scientific consensus of humans’ impact on the climate and its consequences. “The world’s poor will suffer horribly if reliable energy—the engine of prosperity and a better life—is made more expensive and less reliable by the decree of global planners,” Heartland Institute President Joe Bast wrote in a press release. The American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s lobby arm, reprised a similar theme, telling The Guardian, “fossil fuels are a vital tool for lifting people out of poverty around the world, which is something we’re committed to.”

In other words, an industry driven by profit above all is attempting to rebrand itself as a champion for the poor. If you take this logic a step further, like Alex Epstein, founder of Center for Industrial Progress (and fossil fuel consultant), did in his 2014 book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, it is the world that owes industry executives a debt of gratitude. “I believe that we owe the fossil fuel industry an apology,” he writes. “While the industry has been producing the energy to make our climate more livable, we have treated it as a villain. We owe it the kind of gratitude that we owe anyone who makes our lives much, much better.” Epstein is confident in fossil fuels' ability to make the world “wonderful for human life.” 

These critics, except maybe for Epstein, do have a point: It is an immense challenge to transition the world to clean energy without heaping burden on the poor, and it would also be unfair to expect countries such as India to make the same drastic cuts to carbon pollution as the United States and Europe.

This is the central divide of ongoing talks for an international climate deal: How much should industrialized nations contribute and how much should the developing world? Because of that gulf, India won't be identifying a peak date for carbon pollution; China has identified a date after 2030; the United States will bring its emissions down at least 26 percent by 2025. It is not easy to balance the needs of 100-plus countries, and the Kyoto Treaty and Copenhagen both fell apart largely due to this conflict.

That doesn’t mean the fossil fuel industry has the moral high ground. Inaction today guarantees irreversible warming for centuries to come. Far from making the environment “wonderful,” as Epstein says, carbon pollution lands hardest on the people with the fewest resources to adapt. It means more extreme weather, rising food insecurity, an increase in vector-borne diseases, and higher levels of water contamination. Climate change and air pollution already impose a huge cost on the world's poor, which Heartland and API overlook—the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise, for example, mean low-lying nations such as Bangladesh have the most to lose. An independent report in 2012 from the group DARA International linked 400,000 deaths per year, worldwide, to climate change. 

Fossil fuels are just as dangerous in the immediate term as they will be years from now. The same DARA report attributed five million deaths annually to burning fossil fuels, as carbon-intensive economies see many deaths from outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke from poor ventilation, occupational hazards, and skin cancer. China and India, in fact, should arguably be more motivated to transition to cleaner fuels in the near term. Their citizens are choking on their cities’ polluted air.

In 2013, the world spent $550 billion on direct subsidies for fossil fuels. “On average, the richest 20 percent of households in low- and middle-income countries capture 43 percent of fuel subsidies,” an International Monetary Fund report found. It’s an all-too-typical trend: The rich stay on top, and the rest suffer the consequences. The people most responsible for climate change hardly need Pope Francis on their side.