Pope Ignores Fossil Fuels’ Essential Role in Human Flourishing
Climate Change Weekly #288
It seems Pope Francis has learned little since his 2015 encyclical calling on the world to fight climate change by limiting the use of modern technologies and fossil fuels. He called many of the world’s leading oil companies to the carpet last week in a meeting he “requested” (anyone who says no to a meeting with the pope risks alienating many of the world’s estimated 1.3 billion Catholics) with the companies’ top executives. Francis called on the oil companies to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, to save the Earth.
In a column written when Francis issued his encyclical, titled “Pope Francis: Before One Can Know What Is Moral, He Must Know What Is True,” a colleague of mine detailed myriad misguided or mistaken beliefs about climate science Francis received from climate alarmists and takes on faith as if they were holy writ. I won’t go into the science here, other than to say the paper still holds up well.
Francis’ views of the certainty of and danger from human caused climate change are false, and his belief the world can quickly abandon fossil fuels and still reduce hunger and poverty is potentially deadly.
Fossil fuels have been a boon to the world, lifting billions of people out of poverty and hunger, powering lighting, transportation, refrigeration, clean water, modern agriculture (including food delivery, storage, and protection from early decay and pests), indoor air conditioning and heating, cooking, and the multitude of other technologies upon which modern societies are based. In attacking fossil fuels, Francis undermines the use of the very resources and technologies most responsible for raising billions of people from penury. Coal, natural gas, and oil will continue to be vital to increasing lifespans, decreasing infant mortality, improving nutrition, and helping humans flourish for decades to come.
In his brilliant book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein wrote, “Climate is no longer a major cause of death, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. … Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion … looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is … we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe.”
Francis ignores this fact at the risk of the lives and well-being of the world’s most impoverished people.
When considering energy sources, Francis would do well to adopt the humility and intellectual honesty displayed by William Alsup, the presiding judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In a case in which oil companies are being sued by Oakland and San Francisco for causing climate harm, Alsup indicated if he is to consider the potential climate harms caused by the use of oil and gas, he must also examine the huge benefits their use has delivered. “We need to weigh in the large benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels. There have been huge benefits,” Alsup said.
Here are a few facts Francis should take to heart.
Fossil fuels—first coal, but then also oil and natural gas—provided the energy that produced and powered nearly all the revolutionary technologies of the Industrial Revolution, as well as plastics, high-tech manufacturing, and mobile computer devices. Between 1850 and 2010, the exploitation of fossil fuels accompanied, and in large part made possible, a 550 percent increase in the world’s population, all while poverty and hunger declined dramatically. During this time, energy consumption increased nearly 50-fold and world per-capita energy consumption increased nearly nine-fold. Nearly all the world’s increased energy consumption was supplied by fossil fuels.
In addition, the use of fossil fuels for mechanized farming (including gasoline- and diesel-powered tractors for planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and storing, and for trucks to deliver crops to store shelves), to power irrigation systems, and in the creation of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that improve and expedite crop growth and prevent loss to weeds, insects, and other pests, is responsible for the Green Revolution that delivered billions of people from hunger and malnutrition during the twentieth century.
Air conditioning, powered by electricity primarily fueled by coal and natural gas, which Francis decried in his encyclical, has been a boon to public health everywhere it has become widespread. Since its invention and widespread use, air conditioning has prevented thousands of premature deaths from heat-related illnesses each year and millions of lives over the decades. Refrigeration, also powered by fossil fuels, has kept food and medicine from spoiling, saving millions more lives.
Contra Francis, we can’t afford to have the air conditioning, refrigeration, lighting, and other technologies in our homes, supermarkets, businesses, and hospitals work only when the wind blows or the sun shines.
In addition, fossil fuels are front and center before, during, and after natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, greatly reducing the number of people these events injure or kill. Fossil fuels power the helicopters, boats, military, and police that come to the rescue, and the utility vehicles sent to restore electricity after a natural disaster. These fuels also power the vehicles and ambulances that evacuate people from disaster zones, and the vehicles delivering water, food, blankets, and other relief supplies to those who remain. When power lines go down in natural disasters, backup generators powered by diesel, natural gas, or liquid propane—not rooftop solar or wind turbines—provide the electricity to apartment buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, and countless shelters.
Plastics in cell phones, computers, and communications equipment that keep people connected and informed during natural disasters are all made partly from and manufactured using oil and natural gas.
In the end, a world without fossil fuels would be much poorer, filled with hungry people dying prematurely in their infancy and as adults due to entirely preventable illnesses, accidents, or health events. With all due respect to the pope, until he understands the vital role fossil fuels have and should continue to play around the world, he should stick to saving souls rather than pontificating about peoples’ energy choices.
— H. Sterling Burnett
IN THIS ISSUE …
Greenpeace reports in the first quarter of 2018 China’s carbon dioxide emissions are rose at their fastest pace in seven years. China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and Greenpeace’s analysis of China’s official data shows carbon dioxide emissions in the country were 4 per cent higher in the first quarter of 2018 than at the same time in 2017. If they remain 4 percent higher than 2017 throughout the year it would mark the the largest single year growth in emissions increase since 2011.
China’s emissions are rising as a result of growing demand for oil and gas due to increased car ownership and rising use of coal for electricity. China’s government approved new coal-fired power plants in four new provinces in mid-May of this year.
After three years of relative stagnation in the economy and a corresponding decline in emissions, China’s emissions began to rise again in the second quarter of 2016.
As part of its effort to power economic growth while reducing China’s trade deficit with the United States, the Chinese government has indicated it plans to buy more American coal.
In June, China pledged to increase purchases of U.S. energy and agricultural goods as a way to reduce its $375 billion trade deficit and defuse an escalating trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. China’s action will help President Donald Trump satisfy two pledges: to reduce the trade deficit with China and to revive the coal industry, which declined significantly during the presidency of Barack Obama.
China produces, uses, and imports more coal than any other nation. Although U.S. coal exports to China grew in 2017, they make up only a small percentage of China’s coal imports. Most of the 3.2 million short tons sold to China in 2017 was metallurgical coal used to make steel. (Chinese steel production set new records in 2017.) The total value of U.S. coal exported to China last year was about $395 million.
The U.S. more than doubled coal exports to Asia in 2017 to 32.8 million tons, with total overseas shipments rising 61 percent from 2016 to 2017. With China’s decision to import more coal from the United States, the industry’s fortunes should continue to improve, though as I have noted previously, growth in exports could be constrained if state governments do not approve construction of additional export terminals and expansion of existing facilities. That poses another challenge to Trump’s goal of improving the coal industry’s fortunes.
Greenpeace warns if these trends continue it will be impossible for China to cap its greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 as it committed to do in the Paris climate agreement.
Researchers from at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands found, during the period of purported human-caused climate change when flooding is supposed to be increasing, the number of flood deaths and damage from flood events across Europe has been decreasing steadily. The number of deaths tied to flooding fell by about 5 percent a year since the 1950s, and financial losses from flooding have declined 2 percent annually since then.
In their Nature Communications paper, the research team examined flood exposure and records for 37 European countries since the 1870s. After correcting for demographic and economic growth and changes in flood exposure, they found there has been an increase in the number of persons and areas affected by flooding since the 1870s, largely resulting from population increases in flood-prone areas. At the same time, improved modern infrastructure, early warning systems, and modern emergency care have resulted in a decline in fatalities and property losses due to flooding. In addition, the increase in flooding may be misleading: the researchers estimate a large underreporting of small flood events in the earlier part of the period of study (before 1950), which means the amount of flooding may not have increased since the 1870s.
Climate change aside, the authors note a variety of developments alter local flood hazard or exposure, including river regulation and construction of defenses, bypass channels, and reservoirs. In addition, the scientists conclude the impact of flooding has become less severe as urbanization has increased, writing, “areas with high concentration of urban fabric and infrastructure are better protected than less important urban zones, let alone rural areas.” These and other factors have resulted in fewer flood-related deaths having occurred since 1980 than in any prior period.
Research published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters indicates subsurface geothermal (volcanic) activity is primarily responsible for the decline and instability of one the largest glaciers in West Antarctica, the Thwaites Glacier.
While the interior of Antarctica and East Antarctica (which is not underlain by known subsurface volcanoes) have been adding tens of thousands of tons of ice and snow in recent decades, West Antarctic glaciers have been melting and calving. Proponents of the theory human greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change say the glacial decline in West Antarctica is due to anthropogenic global warming. However, the data show air temperatures in Antarctica haven’t risen since 1979, Antarctica’s sea surface temperature has fallen since 2006, and no warming at any level in the ocean in the region has been measured since 2004, yet West Antarctica has seen substantial glacial instability and decline.
The researchers found the cause of the region’s fast glacial flow was warm subglacial water, primarily the result of geothermal heat below a thin surface crust under the Thwaites Glacier and throughout West Antarctica. The thin crust overlying the West Antarctic Rift System lies above subaerial volcanoes which are melting the ice from below, enhancing both glacial melt and the speed of at which the ice in the region flows to the sea. Because the same thin crust and subsurface heat sources underlie not just the Thwaites Glacier but other glaciers and the region as a whole, this research indicates it is likely subsurface geothermal heating, not anthropogenic climate change, that is responsible for the significant loss of ice and instability across West Antarctica.