Big Oil CEOs needed a cli­mate change real­ity check. The Pope de­liv­ered

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Bill McKibben

You kind of ex­pect popes to talk about spir­i­tual stuff, kind of the way you ex­pect chefs to dis­cuss spices or tree sur­geons to make small talk about over­hang­ing limbs. Which is why it was so in­ter­est­ing this week to hear Pope Fran­cis break down the cli­mate de­bate in very prac­ti­cal and very canny terms, dis­play­ing far more math­e­mat­i­cal in­sight than your average world leader and far more strate­gic can­ni­ness than your average jour­nal­ist. In fact, with a few deft sen­tences, he laid bare the hypocrisy that dom­i­nates much of the cli­mate de­bate.

The oc­ca­sion was the gath­er­ing of fos­sil fuel ex­ec­u­tives at the Vat­i­can, one of a se­ries of meet­ings to mark the third an­niver­sary of Laudato Si, his ma­jes­tic en­cycli­cal on global warm­ing. The meet­ings were closed, but by all ac­counts Big Oil put for­ward its usual an­o­dyne ar­gu­ments: any en­ergy tran­si­tion must be slow, mov­ing too fast to re­new­able en­ergy would hurt the poor by rais­ing prices, and so forth.

In re­sponse, Fran­cis gra­ciously thanked the oil ex­ec­u­tives for at­tend­ing, and for “de­vel­op­ing more care­ful ap­proaches to the as­sess­ment of cli­mate risk”. But then he got down to busi­ness. “Is it enough?” he asked. “Will we turn the cor­ner in time? No one can an­swer that with cer­tainty, but with each month that passes, the chal­lenge of en­ergy tran­si­tion be­comes more press­ing.” Two and a half years af­ter the Paris cli­mate talks, he pointed out, “car­bon diox­ide emis­sions and at­mo­spheric con­cen­tra­tions of green­house gases re­main very high. This is dis­turb­ing and a cause for real con­cern.” In­deed.

What’s re­ally “wor­ry­ing”, though, “is the con­tin­ued search for new fos­sil fuel re­serves, whereas the Paris agree­ment clearly urged keep­ing most fos­sil fu­els un­der­ground”. And in that small sen­tence he calls the bluff on most of what passes for cli­mate ac­tion among na­tions and among fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies. Yes, Don­ald Trump not­with­stand­ing, most coun­tries have be­gun to take some steps to re­duce de­mand for en­ergy over time. Yes, oil com­pa­nies have be­gun to grudg­ingly is­sue “cli­mate risk re­ports” and di­vert mi­nus­cule per­cent­ages of their re­search bud­gets to re­new­ables.

But no one has been will­ing to face the fact that we have to leave more than 80% of known fos­sil fuel re­serves un­der­ground if we have any chance of meet­ing the Paris tar­gets. No com­pany has been will­ing to com­mit to leav­ing the coal and oil and gas in the earth, and al­most no na­tion has been will­ing to make them do so. In­stead, the big fos­sil fuel coun­tries con­tinue to aid and abet the big fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies in the push for more min­ing and drilling. In Aus­tralia, the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment backs a mas­sive new coal mine; in Canada, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment lit­er­ally buys a pipe­line to keep the tar sands ex­pand­ing; in the US, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment might as well be a wholly owned sub­sidiary of the fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies.

In fact, as Fran­cis points out, it’s not just that these com­pa­nies and coun­tries are com­mit­ted to dig­ging up the re­serves they cur­rently have. Even more in­sanely, they’re out there ex­plor­ing for more. Com­pa­nies like Exxon de­vote bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars to find­ing new oil fields, even though we have far more oil than we could ever safely burn.

All of this is morally wrong, as Fran­cis points out. “De­ci­sive progress can­not be made with­out an in­creased aware­ness that all of us are part of one hu­man fam­ily, united by bonds of fra­ter­nity and sol­i­dar­ity. Only by think­ing and act­ing with con­stant con­cern for this un­der­ly­ing unity that over­rides all dif­fer­ences, only by cul­ti­vat­ing a sense of uni­ver­sal in­ter­gen­er­a­tional sol­i­dar­ity, can we set out re­ally and res­o­lutely on the road ahead,” he says.

Which is great – it’s the job of re­li­gious lead­ers to re­mind us to think be­yond our own self-in­ter­est.

But Fran­cis also un­der­stands that our cur­rent ap­proach makes no math­e­mat­i­cal sense. We can’t have a nice, slow, easy tran­si­tion be­cause we can’t put barely any more car­bon in the at­mos­phere. We must solve the prob­lem of en­ergy ac­cess for the poor by us­ing re­new­ables, not fos­sil fuel, be­cause “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”. Above all, we’ve got to pay as much at­ten­tion to ac­tual real­ity as we do to po­lit­i­cal real­ity: “Civ­i­liza­tion re­quires en­ergy, but en­ergy use must not de­stroy civ­i­liza­tion!”

It’s odd to have the pope school­ing en­ergy ex­ec­u­tives on the math of car­bon. But ac­tu­ally, no odder than NFL quar­ter­backs school­ing politi­cians on racial in­jus­tice, or high school kids school­ing a na­tion on the dan­ger of guns. Amid the un­prece­dented wave of non­sense com­ing from DC, it’s good to re­mem­ber that there are still peo­ple of all kinds able to pierce through the static and the shout­ing. Good com­mon sense speaks even more loudly when it comes from un­ex­pected cor­ners.

Bill McKibben is the Schu­mann Dis­tin­guished Scholar at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege and the founder of the cli­mate cam­paign

It’s odd to have the pope school­ing en­ergy ex­ec­u­tives on the math of car­bon

Pho­to­graph: An­dreas Solaro/AFP/ Getty Im­ages

‘Good com­mon sense speaks even more loudly when it comes from un­ex­pected cor­ners.’

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