by Craig Richardson
Executive Director, Energy & Environment Legal Institute

(E&E Legal has produced and released a two-minute video that discusses the Pope’s encyclical and “Energy Poverty” in Europe)

The 1965 Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) says “the [Catholic] Church…serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society.” In the last 40 years, examples of this include Pope John Paul II’s relentless condemnation of communism, which was integral to its ultimate collapse, a continuous call for defending human life, and providing a lone voice for the poorest, most marginalized, and forgotten among us.

Pope Francis presents his encyclical, Laudato Si, in this same Catholic social teachings tradition. Of course he confronts a world dominated by sound-bites and rapidly moving social media, and enters into a highly charged political debate about energy and the environment.

Those most delighted by the Pope’s encyclical are a Leftist secular movement, which includes members of the United Nations, billionaires who have invested heavily in renewable energy sources, politicians, and often extreme environmental and population control organizations. These same groups and individuals dismiss the Catholic Church’s voice and claim religion has no place in the Town Square when she defends human life and traditional marriage.

A Washington Post headline declared, “Pope Francis is actually bringing America’s environmentalism movement to its religious and moral roots.” The Sierra Club said, “This Encyclical underscores the need for climate action not just to protect our environment, but to protect humankind and the most vulnerable communities among us.” And socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), now a candidates for President, stated, “Pope Francis’ powerful message on climate change should change the debate around the world and become a catalyst for the bold actions needed to reverse global warming.”

Those who typically promote a worldview opposing the Catholic Church’s now claim a powerful ally in Pope Francis, asserting the moral high ground in the political debate on energy and environment governmental policies. They’re seizing this to push radical policies already tried in Europe. The Pope himself outlines these policies in his encyclical, “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.”

Pushing for renewable energy, and “phasing out” coal-fired power plants has been an unmitigated disaster in Europe, particularly for the elderly and most vulnerable who have literally died prematurely by the tens of thousands as a result. A new term has emerged to describe this phenomenon: Energy poverty, which occurs when a household spends ten percent or more of its disposable income on the rising cost of energy, increasingly unable to meet basic needs to heat, cook, light, or power basic appliances.

And what is the underlying cause of skyrocketing European energy poverty, which according to the EU’s Eurostat office affected nearly ¼ or 122.6 million of EU citizens in 2013? It is EU-mandated lower carbon emissions targets – the very same “climate change” policies pushed by the Left and now echoed by the Pope – which has resulted in skyrocketing energy prices. “Legally binding targets to lower carbon emissions by 2020 mean that energy markets need to become cleaner, but the utilities say they cannot afford to finance the costs, so these will increasingly find their way onto customers’ bills,” reported Reuters in 2013.

Naturally, those least able to afford skyrocketing energy costs are the hardest hit. And these policies are killing people. The Guardian reported that in the winter of 2012-13, 31,000 extra deaths occurred in England and Wales, a 29% increase over the previous year, with 30-50% being linked to the cold indoors. “And not being able to heat your home also takes a huge toll on health in general: those in fuel poverty have higher incidences of asthma, bronchitis, heart and lung disease, kidney disease and mental health problems,” the newspaper reported.

An Independent’s headline, reporting on the impact of energy poverty in the UK, declared: “Long, cold winter for 3 million who can’t pay their energy bills; Fears that 200 people a day could die as temperatures fall and prices rise.” BBC News reported that according to one study, one-third of the elderly and nearly 60% of the study’s disabled respondents in Northern Ireland were forced to choose between eating and heating. And in 2013 the Telegraph reported that in England, electric bills may exceed mortgage costs within five years.

Der Spiegel headline said, “Germany’s Energy Poverty: How Electricity Became a Luxury Good.” The article explains that in 2013, “German consumers will be forced to pay €20 billion ($26 billion) for electricity from solar, wind and biogas plants — electricity with a market price of just over €3 billion.” Die Welt reported that 800,000 Germans are unable to pay their electric bills, and another German newspaper called rising energy prices a “second rent.”

The cruelest fact of all is that Europe’s “climate change” policies are “Worse than useless,” as an Economist headline describes them. Economist Bjorn Lomborg wrote in a Telegraph article, “For twenty years, the refrain has been promises to cut CO₂, like the Kyoto Protocol. For twenty years these policies have failed.” It’s time to balance the cost of climate alarmism against the fact that the proposed policies have been recognized as likely to have no demonstrable effect on the actual climate.

Pope Francis had a tremendous opportunity to address one of the most serious moral issues of our time. Instead, he has given credence and momentum to a movement that has already implemented energy policies that have devastated Europe’s most vulnerable. And now, with a Papal blessing, the push is on to impose the same in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

Craig Richardson is the Executive Director of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, and he holds a Master’s Degree in Catholic Moral Theology.