The Pope and Big Oil


Operation Noah trustee Reggie Norton gives an overview of two gatherings on climate change which took place at the Vatican over the summer, as well as progress on fossil fuel divestment in the Catholic Church.


In June this year, the Vatican invited oil and gas company executives to a conference entitled ‘Energy Transition and Care for Our Common Home’. At the end of the conference, Pope Francis addressed the participants.

He pointed out that a great number of people in the world, probably about a billion, lack access to electricity. To meet their needs, it was important that serious efforts be made to transition to a greater use of energy sources that are highly efficient while producing low levels of pollution.

Pope Francis acknowledged this to be ‘a challenge of epochal proportions’. If we are to eliminate poverty and hunger, as called for by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the billion people without electricity today need to gain access to it, but this energy must be clean, not sourced from fossil fuels, so that we avoid a spiral of extreme climate changes due to a rise in global temperatures, harsher environments and increased levels of poverty.

Since the signing of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases remain very high. But even more worrying for the Pope is the continued search for new fossil fuel reserves, which under the Paris Agreement, could never be burned.

He stressed the opportunity for industry, investors, researchers and consumers to talk together about transition and the search for alternatives. ‘Civilization’, he said, ‘requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!’

The Pontiff admitted that progress has been made, but wondered if it is enough and whether we will turn the corner in time. ‘No one can answer that with certainty’, he said, ‘but with each month that passes, the challenge of energy transition becomes more pressing’.

‘Political decisions, social responsibility on the part of the business community and criteria governing investments – all these must be guided by the pursuit of the long-term common good and concrete solidarity between generations’, he said.

The Pope pointed to the ethical reasons for moving towards global energy transition with a sense of urgency. The effects of the climate crisis are not evenly distributed, for it is the poor who suffer most from the ravages of global warming, with increasing disruption in the agricultural sector, water insecurity and exposure to severe weather events.

He was concerned that the demand for continuous economic growth has led to severe ecological and social consequences, since the current economic system thrives on ever-increasing extraction, consumption and waste.

Pope Francis invited those attending the conference to be the ‘core of a group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems’.

He finished by saying, ‘There is no time to lose: We received the earth as a garden-home from the Creator; let us not pass it on to future generations as a wilderness’ (cf. Laudato Sì 160).

At a Vatican conference on the third anniversary of Laudato Sì in July, Pope Francis once again reaffirmed the urgency of action on climate change, especially at the upcoming COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland, in December: ‘Governments should strive to honour the commitments made in Paris, in order to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis… we cannot afford to waste time!’ His comments were echoed by Cardinal Peter Turkson and Bill McKibben, who urged the Vatican to divest from fossil fuels (from 32:54 to 50:20).

More than 100 Catholic institutions around the world have now made commitments to divest from fossil fuels, including the Passionists, the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and Newman University in the UK. Last month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Ireland announced that it would be divesting from fossil fuels. So far, no Catholic dioceses in the UK have made fossil fuel divestment commitments.

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