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The Moral Case for Renewable Energy

Observatore Romano/AFP/Getty Images

The anticipatory frenzy over Pope Francis’ soon-to-be-released encyclical has turned media attention to the smoldering intersection of ecology, political economy, and privilege. People are paying attention to Catholic social teaching’s long-attested concern for the poor and vulnerable, and to its critiques of economies that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

What’s the upshot for what Benedict XVI aptly called “the energy problem”? Is the Pope going to say next week that fossil fuel-driven woes are moral problems that need political and economic remediation, pronto? This (multi-) million-dollar question is worrying many politicians, lobbyists, and corporate pundits who would like to believe that the Church should have nothing to say about energy ethics.

Catholic reflection on energy ethics focuses on justice, sustainability, and human dignity. These teachings are both recent and enduring; in fact, in 1981 a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgated a prescient document, “Reflections on the Energy Crisis,” which formed the foundation for an approach to energy ethics recently advanced by a group of professors that included myself.

Spurred by oil and gas shortages that affected millions of Americans, in 1981 the Bishops linked respect for life—of humans as well as Creation—with the need to pursue energy systems that could power societies at home and abroad. They analyzed various types of energy sources of the “past, present, and future”—a rubric that roughly translates to: status quo fossil fuels, transitional energy sources or bridge fuels, and renewables. For each category the Bishops engaged moral principles, technological capacity, and political economy.

They were ahead of their time. “Reflections on the Energy Crisis” was issued well before the 1988 formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and even before John Paul II identified the ecological crisis as a moral issue in 1990. (That year, both John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher named global warming as an urgent problem for the international community.)

This is all distant historical data for the college students I teach, who were born in the mid-1990s. Nor do they remember that by the late 1970s, environmental degradation had surged into public consciousness, and that Hubbert’s peak and the so-called “population bomb” were household terms. Milton Friedman had successfully envisioned the “Washington Consensus” economic policy that prioritized profit, growth, and trade liberalization. In the 1980s Reaganomics beguiled the nation’s power brokers, and Pope John Paul II was a young and charismatic international figure.

Of course, there are differences between then and now, as well as striking parallels, such as the potent combination of market liberalization plus fossil fuels; concern about global inequities; and disquiet over environmental devastation.

Now, those intertwined factors are a full-out crisis. Returning to the Bishops’ 1981 document allows us to consider how ecclesial wisdom of the past can inform energy ethics in the present. That was exactly the insight that spurred professor Erin Lothes—a former Columbia University Earth Institute fellow with a Ph.D. in Catholic theology—to convene a group of scholars around the Bishops’ 1981 letter. For several years we circulated commentaries and eventually, five of us—all U.S. residents and professors—recently published “Catholic Moral Traditions and Energy Ethics of the Twenty-First Century,” as a peer-reviewed, open-access article. (We might call it hyper-peer-reviewed: Dr. Lothes commendably sought and received more than 15 additional, external reviews from noted scientists and policy experts.)

The premise of our article is this: What provides energy to societies in the twenty-first century is not merely a challenge of technology or economics. It is also (fundamentally) a question of energy ethics: the pursuit of justice and care for the poor and vulnerable, including the environment. These themes are part of Catholic social doctrine, and we will not be surprised to see them in the encyclical.

In 1981, the Bishops asked Americans to:

1. Cherish and protect life as a gift from God.

2. Accept an appropriate share of responsibility for the welfare of creation.

3. Live in solidarity with others for a common good, namely, the sustainability of an abundant Earth.

4. Strive for justice in society.

5. Give special attention to the needs of the poor and members of minority groups.

6. Contribute to the widespread participation in decision-making processes.

We add:

 7. Employ technological prudence, an idea that builds on the thought of many Catholic thinkers and forestalls the known temptations to proclaim purely technocratic solutions for what are also—or at core—ethical problems.

We argue that there is a clear moral imperative to phase out carbon-based energy sources as quickly as possible, transitioning toward renewable, sustainable forms of energy for all. These goals must be pursued and achieved in a way that meets the demands of sufficiency and justice for the most vulnerable (including people living in poverty in the U.S., as well as developing countries still awaiting the promised benefits of economic growth and development).

The goal of decarbonized economies is not radical. Our analysis shows it to be the path of common sense in pursuit of the common good. Even the G7 now holds that the goal of development must be achieved while moving away from the harms that fossil fuels bring. And while fossil fuels are clearly a central part of our daily lives and economies, especially in the United States, they can be supplanted by renewable, more sustainable alternatives.

To achieve this, we need to take three steps.

First, we must look frankly and critically at “bridge” fuels like natural gas and nuclear energy (see the paper for detailed analysis). These energy sources should be deployed only in the short-term as means to the greater end of renewable, sustainable energy for all; with full transparency of impacts, costs, and benefits; and under the guidance of the precautionary principle.

Second, we need to subsidize and invest in renewable energies, while phasing out subsidies and incentives for fossil fuel-based energy systems.

Third, while moving away from carbon-based energy sources, privileged societies like our own must also empower the poorest three billion people of the world with sufficient clean, convenient ways to heat their homes, cook their meals, and bring light to their world. 

To move toward a world of inclusion and sustainability is a goal worthy of our best efforts—and it is within the reach of human ingenuity. It might be akin to great achievements of the twentieth century: the Apollo space project, for example, or the eradication of smallpox. At all levels of scale, we can recalibrate the moral tenor of our privilege by reconsidering and reconfiguring our energy sources. As Pope Francis is likely to suggest, the time to act is now, and the Catholic Church has rich moral traditions to draw upon in pursuit of these worthy goals.