The world waits in anticipation as Pope Francis and his advisers finalize an official Vatican statement on climate change and the environment – expected out this week. The Pope is reportedly worried about how climate change might impact the poor, and he is quite right to be concerned. But it is the environmental proposals currently being championed as solutions, however, that are the real threat. The most frequently cited policies for allegedly “dealing with climate change” – like raising prices on fossil fuels and taxing carbon dioxide emissions – would actually cause harm to energy-starved and impoverished nations around the world.
Environmental activists argue the continued use of fossil fuels will produce dramatic changes in the climate that will harm future generations. Therefore, if we succeed in capping greenhouse gases, many, especially the most vulnerable, will benefit. Opponents counter that restricting fossil fuel use will harm poor people today both by slowing economic growth and by denying them access to more efficient, dependable fuels.
Asking the poor of today to sacrifice their livelihoods and hopes in the name of reducing energy use would be a great injustice. Faster growth means more wealth and greater knowledge for future generations. Whatever challenges climate change may bring, our smarter, richer great-grandchildren will have better tools and more abundant resources to deal with them than we have today.
The Catholic Church has a history of resolving complex risk situations. For example, to ensure that saints were properly selected, the Church ensured that both sides of the case were heard. The Advocatus Dei made the case favoring that decision; the Advocatus Diablo – “Devil’s Advocate” – made the opposing case. One hopes that in addressing the morality of energy restrictions, both sides will be heard. The Vatican has heard the case for conventional environmental policies, having recently hosted a conference on this topic. Have they heard the opposing view?
Long before the theoretical effects of climate change are ever felt, the alarmist policies favored by United Nations agencies and major environmental advocacy groups would severely hobble developing countries’ economies. Replacing affordable and reliable fossil fuels with more expensive, less reliable alternative sources would increase the cost of energy around the world. That would be bad enough for low income people in developed nations. If forced on developing countries, it would be a humanitarian disaster.
The world’s poorest people already spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy. Increasing prices would block the shift in poorer nations from “biomass” fuels like dried animal dung to much healthier alternatives like propane and natural gas.
Increasing energy costs will slow the process of replacing backbreaking human labor with mechanical devices, as occurred over the past century in now-wealthy Western countries. The next stage of industrialization and prosperity will be blocked, as the factories and processes that the United States and Europe used to grow their economies in the 19th and 20th centuries will no longer be affordable—or possibly even allowed under international law.
The impact on individuals and families in poor countries will also be enormous. When a key economic input like fossil fuel energy artificially increases in price, virtually everything becomes more expensive. For the 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day, making everything they need to survive even marginally more expensive would be catastrophic.
None of this is to say that potential threats from future climate change should simply be ignored. If the world’s leaders—from heads of state to spiritual leaders like Pope Francis—want to help make the world a safer place, they should champion policies that improve society’s ability to cope with disasters, environmental and otherwise, and avoid those that hamper economic growth and innovation.
A wealthier world is a healthier world, and it’s the people at the bottom of the economic ladder who will benefit most from rising global prosperity. People of good faith have innumerable ways to help our fellow humans flourish and protect themselves from harm. Forcing them into perpetual energy poverty is not one of them. I hope Pope Francis will agree.