The Pope’s warning ensues from his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, in which he called climate change “a global problem with grave implications” and “one of the principal challenges facing humanity.” He warned that it would most gravely impact the poor, many of whom “live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.”
The Pope was then, and is now, seriously mistaken. The consequences of the world’s following his advice would be disastrous—especially for the poor he purports to champion.
The roughly 1.8˚F of warming since the mid-19th century has brought the world far more benefits than harm, with lengthened growing seasons, reduced disease, and reduced deaths from severe cold (which kills ten times as many people per day as severe heat). During that time of warming, human population has multiplied, human prosperity has ballooned, and human life expectancy has more than doubled.
The warming has been an important contributor, but far more important has been the economic development that has lifted billions of people out of poverty. And indispensable to that has been access to abundant, affordable, reliable energy—some 85 percent of which around the world comes today from fossil fuels.
In an ironic self-contradiction, the Pope told the conference,
If we are to eliminate poverty and hunger … the more than one billion people without electricity today need to gain access to it. But that energy should also be clean, by a reduction in the systematic use of fossil fuels. Our desire to ensure energy for all must not lead to the undesired effect of a spiral of extreme climate changes due to a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, harsher environments and increased levels of poverty.
Yet coal, oil, and natural gas have provided the vast majority of the energy that has transformed the world from one in which the vast majority of people lived on the equivalent of $1.25 a day, life expectancy at birth was under 30 years, and nearly half of all children died before age 5 to one in average income per capita exceeds $27 per day, average life expectancy at birth is over 68 years, and only about 4 out of every hundred children die before age 5.
While the Pope worries that fossil fuel use threatens to “destroy civilization,” one of the easiest ways to locate civilization is to look at this composite photo, provided by NASA, of the world at night and contrast the light and dark areas.
The well-lit places are where civilization prevails. The dark areas are where it doesn’t. And what lights the well-lit areas is electricity, two-thirds of which comes from burning fossil fuels, another 16% from hydro, and 11% from nuclear.
In those well-lit areas, children can study at night to gain the education they need to become economically productive. Their families can be protected from both heat and cold not by burning wood and dung that poison their air but by setting a thermostat. They can keep their food and medicines from spoiling by using refrigerators. Laborers can work in factories powered not by muscle but by machines, multiplying their productivity hundreds of times. Hospitals can heal patients using advanced equipment.
In the dark areas of the world, hundreds of millions lack electricity and all those and untold other benefits that come with it.
Advocates of radical transformation of the world’s energy systems to fight global warming call, as does Pope Francis, for replacing fossil fuel with wind and solar in industrialized countries and skipping the fossil-fuel stage in developing countries. But that’s a recipe for disaster in both cases.
Why? Because wind and solar cannot produce the abundant, reliable energy fossil fuels can at a comparable price. When accounting for all their costs—including the necessity of keeping backup power generation going for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine—the cost per megawatt-hour of electricity from wind and solar is much higher.
Poverty is a far greater threat to human welfare than climate. People with income equivalent to the bottom tenth of Americans can thrive in any climate from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert or the Amazon rainforest. People in extreme poverty can’t thrive in the best tropical paradise.
But the energy policy Pope Francis urges would slow, stop, or reverse the conquest of poverty in the developing world while pushing hundreds of millions, even billions, in the developed world back down the economic ladder. That will mean more poverty, lower life expectancy, and higher child mortality rates.
Case in point: Britain’s energy policy, aimed at reducing fossil fuel use to generate electricity, has driven electricity prices sky high. The result? In the winters of 2010–2014, excess winter deaths averaged 27,860, of which 30 to 40 percent, or about 8,000 to 11,000 were attributable to “fuel poverty” brought on by the high energy prices. And this past winter, some 48,000 Britons died due to cold weather. It follows that about 14,000 to 19,000 of the deaths were attributable to fuel poverty.
The good news is that over the past decade increasing scientific research has shown that we don’t need to choose between conquering poverty and saving the planet from disastrous warming. The actual warming effect of doubled carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be much smaller than the 2.7–8.1˚F the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has claimed. It is certainly less than half, probably less than a third.
Indeed, as climatologist John R. Christy, meteorologist Joseph D’Aleo, and climate statistician James Wallace put it, observational evidence indicates that “once just the Natural Factor [solar, volcanic, and ocean current cycle variability] impacts on temperature data are accounted for, there is no … Natural Factor Adjusted Warming at all” left to blame on carbon dioxide. I.e., carbon dioxide’s warming effect is likely so small as to be undetectable.
Climate change doesn’t threaten to “destroy civilization.” Misguided responses to it—including those promoted by Pope Francis—do.