Next week, Pope Francis will be visiting President Obama in the White House. There, on Sept. 23, expect to hear more pontificating about the urgency of global climate change.
These two world luminaries – the first a spiritual leader of the shrinking number of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the second a political leader of a steadily shrinking plurality of American voters – will doubtless urge support for immediate and expensive measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
One thing these men have in common, aside from speaking piously and living in regal splendor, is their vocal opposition to coal. This summer Pope Francis, in remarks supporting the Vatican’s environmental encyclical, said carbon emissions from coal pose a danger to the spinning globe. He asked Catholics to slow or stop the use of coal and other fossil fuels.
Our president is less forthright, as we expect of a partisan politician. But he shares the papal opposition to coal. President Obama occasionally mumbles support for an all-of-the-above energy policy, assuring us that coal has a role to play. But not in the U.S., though our country possesses the world’s largest supply of it. He has called on his followers in the regulatory bureaucracies to prevent the use of coal domestically and calls on world banks to stop financing coal’s use abroad.
Here’s where the plot thickens.
In an ironic twist of Biblical proportion, no sooner will the Pope leave the White House than the head of the People’s Republic of China will enter it on the following day. On Sept. 24, the fragrance of holy incense in the Oval Office will be displaced by the sulfurous, unholy presence of China’s President Xi Jingping. The world’s most influential opponent of coal departs and the world’s biggest coal defender arrives; Hollywood could not have contrived a script like this
So, on the same day that Pope Francis will address a joint session of Congress and, later, a throng of believers on the Mall, China’s president will be giving our president a very different message when their discussion turns to climate change.
President Obama may try to persuade President Xi to pledge meaningful greenhouse gas reductions for the Paris climate conference in December. But Xi doesn’t curry favor with the League of Conservation Voters … or any voters, let alone Brussels bureaucrats. China has pledged only to stop increasing its greenhouse gas output in 2030, when it expects industrialization to plateau. That is, when it can no longer increase its emissions.
Xi might remind the president and the Pope that there are almost exactly as many people in the world today who lack electricity as there are Catholics – just over one billion. Few of these energy-poor people live in China, and that’s because China is the world’s top coal-consuming nation, and not very apologetic about it either.
When Xi politely declines to slow his economy further by raising its energy costs, the White House will have to explain away their differences. Here is the difference you won’t hear. President Obama and the Pope, both pious apostles of the poor, nevertheless view reducing carbon emissions as more important than reducing poverty, whereas comrade Xi believes that reducing poverty is more important than reducing carbon emissions.
Put another way, while both the Pope and our president use their historic meeting to sell a global plan for de-carbonizing the world’s economy, President Xi understands why de-carbonization is a euphemism for de-industrialization, a plan that China, India, and two-thirds of the world can’t afford. Sub-Saharan Africa for example has only 28 GW of power – the same as Arizona – to serve 860 million people. Arizona has 6.7 million people.
Pope Francis and President Obama warn of predatory, polluting capitalists, but overlook how economic growth powered by fossil fuel energy has done more to eliminate mass misery than any combination in history. President Xi may wonder who’s the real champion of the poor – the defenders of the faith or the defenders of fossil fuel?
Luke Popovich is a Washington-based energy writer and a columnist for Coal Age Magazine.