Fossil fuels have benefits

by Rolf Westgard, Guest faculty in the University’s Lifelong Learning program

The May encyclical from Pope Francis, “Laudato Si,” is an eloquent plea for an equitable distribution of the earth’s resources, conservation and renewable energy. Few of us will dispute these themes, but it is worth a look at some of the details.
The encyclical decries a “throwaway culture” that produces yearly “hundreds of millions of tons of waste.” Climate change is noted as “a global problem with grave implications” and “one of the principal challenges facing humanity.” Fossil fuel use and the emission of carbon dioxide are to be “drastically reduced.” 
Renewable energy is to be emphasized. There is no mention of fossil fuel benefits such as the substitution of kerosene for whale oil, which saves endangered whale populations. Nor does the encyclical mention the increase inagricultural productivity that results from petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, which allow more land to stay in conservation reserves.
Our cities are described in paragraph 44 as “huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water.” Actually, the occupant of the typical urban high-rise apartment uses fewer resources than his or her counterpart in a suburban or rural home, surrounded by those nice, green lawns and commuter roads.
I would note that, despite record human numbers and carbon dioxide emissions, human well-being has never been higher, by virtually any measure, whether climate-sensitive or not. Human life expectancies are the longest in history, and living standards are gradually increasing. Poverty, hunger and malnutrition have been reduced, especially in Asia. Mortality from vector-borne diseases and extreme climate events is low.
The pope’s plea to support the world’s less fortunate will draw nearly all of us to his side. But substituting expensive and erratic energy sources for fossil fuels and nuclear energy will not be an improvement.