Misplaced Concern: Pope Francis’s Energy Agenda

Myron Ebell Director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy, CEI
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“Everybody loves Pope Francis” for his “humble ways and inclusive message,” blared the Washington Post Express’ front page headline. That “everybody” includes American progressives, who plan to use the pope’s wild popularity to advance their political agenda during his upcoming visit to the United States. Does that mean progressive policies advance Christian values? Not at all.

In fact, policies that encourage developing countries to invest in the most expensive and unreliable sources of electricity, such as wind and solar, and close down the most affordable — fossil fuels — would negatively effect the world’s poorest by hindering their access to reliable, affordable energy.

Yet, that is precisely what groups like Center for American Progress, NextGen Climate (founded by greener-than-thou hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer),350.org, and the Sierra Club are advocating. For the environmentalists now rallying around the Pope’s message of fighting global warming, doing so means reducing access to the most reliable and affordable sources of energy generation, while promoting costly, unproven, and unreliable “green” energy policies.

Energy is the lifeblood of our modern economy. And the poor spend a larger share of their income on energy than do wealthier people. For that reason, policies that make energy less affordable and less plentiful threaten the ability of the world’s neediest people to lift themselves out of poverty.

The pope’s stated concern for the poor sounds very nice, but his recent encyclical on climate change does a poor job in reflecting that. The encyclical states that “our Sister, Mother Earth” can only be saved from the ravages of global warming by adopting policies that would mean the dismantling of modern industrial civilization. That is no way to help the poor.

For many Americans, combatting global warming would mean being forced to give up air conditioning during sweltering summers, trade in their cars for bicycles and buses, and “seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress” than free market capitalism and economic growth. That’s bad enough. But for people in developing countries, the stakes are much higher.

The reality is that denying access to electricity produced by the most abundant, efficient, and affordable sources — namely coal, oil, and natural gas — will consign billions of people to perpetual energy poverty.

If anyone — the pope, or Americans, or people in other countries — truly wants to help the poor, they must compare the potential effects of global warming on poor people with the much worse effects of the policies the pope’s encyclical seems to endorse.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis argues that addressing global warming is made morally necessary by our concern for the poor. The argument goes that stopping global warming will especially benefit poor people in poor countries who have not caused global warming, but will suffer most from impacts such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes.

Wealth creation makes societies better able to address challenges like global warming. Yet, Pope Francis’s encyclical casts such a negative light on so many aspects of modern life — air conditioning being just the beginning — that it essentially advocates denying these blessings of free markets and modern technology to the world’s poorest people.

Over a billion people in the world do not have any electricity. Roughly two billion more have access only to small quantities of intermittent electric power. The proposed polices in his encyclical will actually harm the poorest countries in the long run instead of helping to pull them out of poverty.

If we are serious about helping the poor then we must understand the blessings that follow from access to abundant, affordable energy. Pope Francis’s first visit to America will be a success if he sees firsthand the power of America’s free market economy to alleviate poverty.