Pope Francis, during a speech last weekend, told a group of oil executives that they need to wind down their use of fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources. Those firms – including ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and others – were at the Vatican as part of a two-day conference, which culminated in this stark address.
As reported by BBC News, the Pope advocated that we certainly need energy, but that that energy use “must not destroy civilization.” Much of the speech's tone and content can be traced back to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, in which he tackles the phenomenon head-on.
He said that at least a billion people around the world today need access to electricity if poverty and hunger are to be eliminated. The Pope added, though, that this “energy should also be clean, by a reduction in the systematic use of fossil fuels,” pointing out that to do so would avoid climate change extremes, harsher environments, and an increase in the levels of poverty.
The Pope is known for his understanding of the extent of the climate change problem, and his insistence that we act on it. As someone who also constantly strives to shine a spotlight on social injustice, he’s right to bring up the issue of climate change-exacerbated poverty too: Experts repeatedly agree that a warmer world will make poverty and inequality worse.
“Will we turn the corner in time? No one can answer that with certainty,” he added, according to The New York Times. “But with each month that passes, the challenge of energy transition becomes more pressing.”
Again, he’s right. The Paris Agreement is, sadly, a pretty weak attempt to deal with climate change, particularly as none of the targets – which are set by individual nations – are that strong right now, nor are they legally binding.
Still, it does set out a clear, international framework for stopping the world from warming more than 2°C (3.6°F). If we have any hope of hitting those targets, then we need to act now, and fast, and clean energy is key.
Fossil fuel companies, unsurprisingly, have been incredibly resistant to the changing times and the rise in increasingly cheap renewables. Evidence shows that some – ExxonMobil for instance – knew about climate change for decades, but much of their own scientific data was smeared over by their own PR campaign in the name of profit margins.
The writing’s certainly on the wall, and plans to switch to a low-carbon economic model are being hashed out by a handful of fossil fuel companies. Saying that, it’s unclear if the Pope’s words to those oil executives will do anything to speed things up.
In fact, what may be more likely to sway them further is Direct Air Capture technology, which can theoretically bury atmospheric carbon dioxide while turning some into a carbon neutral hydrocarbon fuel on a large scale. There is, after all, a reason that one of the investors in such tech is an oil sands magnate – and it’s probably not just because negative emissions are likely needed to achieve the goals of the Paris accords.
Other public figures have handled the oil industry somewhat differently to the Pope. Back in January, the City of New York announced that it was going to sue the oil industry’s biggest players, hoping to receive reparations for climate change-related damages.