“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” This was Pope Francis’s summary of his Encyclical earlier this year on the alleged destruction of our planet. The leading culprit, in his view, is humanity’s use of fossil fuels, which he believes are immoral and should largely be illegal.
This week, the Pope will be meeting with the President, addressing a joint session of Congress, and speaking to a crowd of over a million in Philadelphia, sharing his views in the name of concern for humanity, particularly the poor.
“Like no pope before him,” according to the New York Times, “Francis is using the grand stage of his trip to the United States to demonstrate that the church exists to serve the poor and marginalized.”
But if he wants to help humanity, especially the poorest human beings, Pope Francis needs to recognize that fossil fuels make Earth not a “pile of filth,” but a far better, healthier, cleaner, and more bountiful place to live.
Imagine a commoner from 300 years ago was magically transported from the Earth in its state back then to the Earth in its state now. What he would see is not “an immense pile of filth” but an environment that is beautifully clean and healthy compared to anything he—or even the Papal Royalty of 300 years ago—ever knew.
He would marvel at the cleanliness and drinkability of the water, in contrast to the inaccessible and disease-ridden water he had been used to; the eradication of or inoculation against once-ubiquitous disease-carrying insects; the pure air compared to the indoor wood fires he kept warm by (when he could afford wood); the ability to access the most beautiful parts of nature. And he would marvel at the bounty he was surrounded by: the farms surrounding him with fresh food, the comfortable buildings, the affordable, abundant clothing, labor-saving machines. The Earth that once seemed so hazardous and so barren of resources has become a wonderful place to live.
Fossil fuel energy drives this improvement of nature for human beings. Transforming a planet for the better requires far more physical work than humans could ever do. By ingeniously figuring out how to create machines that can do most of our physical work for us, we can improve life across the board—if we have abundant, reliable energy to fuel those machines.
That’s where the fossil fuel industry comes in. Unlike any other energy industry, it has figured out how to produce energy abundance on the scale of billions of people—in a way that generates far more benefit than cost.
Since 1980, the world has increased its use of coal, oil, and natural gas by over 80 percent —because that is the most cost-effective way to produce energy. At the same time, the average life expectancy of our world’s 7 billion individuals has gone up 7 years—7 years of precious life! Every other metric of human well-being has also improved, from income to access to health care to nourishment to clean water access. The most growth has been among the poorest people in the world. Shouldn’t this be profoundly morally inspiring to the Pope?
The standard reason to claim that fossil fuels are ruinous, despite their incredible benefits to humanity, is that they cause intolerable “climate change.” But decades of predictions that increasing atmospheric CO2 from .03 percent to .04 percent would cause runaway warming were met by the reality that CO2 causes mild, manageable, and arguably desirable warming—and certainly a desirable increase in plant growth. Most of all, just as abundant energy helps us improve every other area of life, it also helps us make ourselves safe from any climate change, natural or man-made.
According to the international disaster database, climate-related deaths are down 98 percent over the past 80 years. In 2013, there 21,122 such deaths worldwide compared to a high of 3.7 million in 1931, when world population was less than a third of its current size.
Our visitor from 300 years ago would feel far safer from climate on today’s Earth than the Earth 300 years ago. The Pope should announce to the world that if we want to make more people safe from climate and more people lifted up from poverty we need energy abundance, including fossil fuel abundance.
But the Pope is not calling for energy abundance, but energy poverty. He seems to be unable to see how much better fossil fuels have made our world. Why?
The Pope describes our wonderful world as “filth” because he has adopted a dogma popularized by the modern Green movement: that human beings are by their nature polluter-parasites on nature, beings who greedily despoil and deplete the Earth when they should be trying to minimize their impact on it.
But if we observe human beings’ actual nature, we are not polluter-parasites but improver-creators, who should maximize our positive impact on nature in the service of maximizing human well-being. Nature does not give us a good standard of living; it gives us a dangerous environment with nowhere near the resources we need to flourish. We survive and flourish by intelligently transforming nature to be a healthier, more resource-rich place to live. We make mistakes, and our activities inevitably have risks and byproducts, but overall we create far more solutions than problems.
Fossil fuels are a perfect example: we take the stored sunlight from ancient dead plants that is hidden underground doing nothing, and transform it into mana for our machines. Every day we get better at making these fuels more valuable with fewer problems.
There are some 3 billion people in the world who have next to no energy, and 1.3 billion who have no electricity whatsoever. If their lives are to improve, humanity will need to use more fossil fuels, not less. That is a moral imperative.
Thus, whatever our religion or lack of it, if we care about human life we should demand that any moral leaders recognize the moral case for fossil fuels.