Realism and Renewables: 'Laudato Si’' and the Real Option for the Poor

Realism and Renewables: ‘Laudato Si’’ and the Real Option for the Poor

Realism and Renewables: ‘Laudato Si’’ and the Real Option for the Poor

Solar panels like this one seen in 2013 on a house in San Marcos, CA, are key to a recent program in Diocese of Stockton, CA. Diocesan officials have teamed with a solar energy firm and the Catholic Climate Covenant to offer members of three parishes a chance to save on their electricity bill and raise funds for their parishes and local Catholic Charities programs. (Credit: Mike Blake/Reuters via CNS.)

Pope Francis’s 'Laudato Si’' emphasizes responding to God's call to care for the creation that has been given us, so that its gifts may be used by all, and particularly that we may protect the poor and vulnerable who suffer the effects of climate change first. The pope says it is the imperative moral obligation to change our modes of production and consumption in order to accelerate rapidly to renewable energy systems.

Commentary

A recent article in Crux by Father Matthew Schneider opines that pipelines are “in step with the church’s integral ecology.”

Suggesting that pipelines are consistent with integral ecology, because we are “stuck” with fossil fuels to provide for the energy needs of the poor, ignores the overriding message of Laudato Si’.  

Laudato Si’ teaches that there is an “urgent need to develop policies to limit emissions and substitute for fossil fuels” precisely because of the unequal suffering of the poor and vulnerable under climate change.

The overriding message of Laudato Si’ is the imperative moral obligation to change our modes of production and consumption in order to accelerate rapidly to renewable energy systems.

This message of caring for our common home builds upon a significant body of Catholic magisterial teaching beginning with Saint Pope John Paul II’s 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s Caritas et Veritate, the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, and the Catechism.

Suggesting that oil pipelines are safe overlooks the documented risks of pipelines.  According to data from the U.S. DOT Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), pipeline failure rates are continuing to rise significantly, especially in new pipeline installations.

And, focusing on pipelines misdirects attention from the rapidly growing renewable energy sources that are essential to counteract the dangerous impacts of climate change.  These renewable energy sources are increasingly cost-effective.

In fact, the 2015 Deutsche Bank Solar Outlook report assesses that solar power will be at cost parity with other energy sources in 80% of the world by the end of 2017.

In Paragraph 165, Pope Francis is realistic about the current use of fossil fuels.  “Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions.”  

The key word is “short-term.”  The sunk costs of long-term infrastructure like pipelines are not prudent investments when the world is moving decisively toward a low and zero-carbon future.   

Isolating this single aspect of the text from the entire argument of Laudato Si’ represents a limited, if not misleading, interpretation.

Arguing that safer transmission of oil through pipelines will best preserve environmental health is like requesting bandaids for a leaky heart.  

The best way to contain deadly leakage is to change the central power system.  In other words, the patient doesn’t need a band-aid; the patient (the earth) needs a transplant: The replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy systems.

Laudato Si’ does not call for safer mechanisms or more pipelines to facilitate our ongoing dependence upon fossil fuel, but writes that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels “needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Laudato Si’ is not a technical treatise on how to do so. For that, it’s necessary to read the work of scientists and engineers who demonstrate that the world can generate all of its energy from wind, water, and solar energy by 2030 (see work by Mark Jacobson et al.).

This is a technical possibility. Achieving this depends upon our social and cultural choices: And most importantly, our moral and faith choices.  

Laudato Si’ emphasizes responding to God’s call to care for the creation that has been given us, so that its gifts may be used by all, and particularly that we may protect the poor and vulnerable who suffer the effects of climate change first.

Schneider echoes the appropriate pastoral message of the pope – that the lesser of two evils is legitimate. No one should feel guilty about their current use of energy when there are no choices.

However, we are called to ensure these are “short-term” measures and to take urgent action to choose and invest in clean and healthy energy.  

As paragraph 26 states: “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

Choices for renewable energy are in fact multiplying.  Great progress is being made in accelerating the shift to renewable energy.

This is evident in New York State, committed to 50% electrification by renewable sources by 2030, in Colorado, which has pledged to continue building a strong economy based on renewables, and many other examples.

It’s evident around the world that nations – especially poor nations where fossil energy is expensive and intermittent – are leapfrogging over the intermediate step of dirty fossil fuels and creating their energy access on renewable systems.

Schneider correctly cites the International Energy Outlook 2016 report, which states that “Even though consumption of non-fossil fuels is expected to grow faster than consumption of fossil fuels, fossil fuels still account for 78% of energy use in 2040.”

The IEO also states that “Renewables are the world’s fastest-growing energy source.”  

However, the IEO 2016 reference case projections do not include the potential effects of the recently finalized Clean Power Plan (CPP) regulations in the United States. As the report states, “With the CPP, U.S. renewable energy use in 2040 would be 37% higher than in the IEO 2016 reference case.”

Globally, renewable energy installations continue to rise.  According to the International Energy Agency, “renewables are expected to cover more than 60% of global power capacity growth of the next five years.  Two thirds of this growth will be in 4 key markets: China (37%); the U.S. (13%), the EU (12%) and India (9%).  

Furthermore, “by 2040, the majority of renewables-based generation is competitive without any subsidies.”  Renewable energy represents a major opportunity for economic development.

Increasingly, residential customers, communities, utilities, states, and investors have significant options for renewable energy.  

These choices increase in number and decrease in cost as citizens elect them.  This is good news for Catholics and all people of good will and all concerned citizens who are caring for our common home, and each other.

Dr. Erin Lothes is an associate professor of Theology at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ, the lead author of Catholic Energy Ethics for the Twenty-first Century, author of A New Paradigm for Catholic Energy Ethics, and former Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University.  She is also the author of The Paradox of Christian Sacrifice: The Loss of Self, the Gift of Self (Herder and Herder) and Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action (Orbis).

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