This weekend two remarkable parallel events happened in a building in the gardens of the Vatican, where hundreds of years ago Galileo was condemned.
A small number of the world’s top institutional investors, who between them control $10 trillion of assets, sat down and talked seriously about climate change with the top bosses at Big Oil as well as senior figures from the Vatican and the University of Notre Dame.
The institutional investors included Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock; whereas the oil executives included Bob Dudley, the CEO from BP, Darron Woods, the CEO from Exxon, as well as executives from Royal Dutch Shell, Norway’s Equinor, Pemex of Mexico, and ENI from Italy. According to insiders at the meeting, this was a “unique dialogue in front of their peers”, with top influential investors talking face to face with the bosses from Big Oil and telling them to act over climate change. This kind of meeting is unique at this level of seniority.
Up for discussion was how to transition away from fossil fuels, as well as some of the tools to do so, including increasing the untried and untested use of Carbon, Capture and Storage (CCS), as well as carbon pricing.
The meeting, which was meant to be under Chatham House rules, has been overshadowed by the second event, which was a public address in Italian by Pope Francis, which has now gone public. The Pope’s message was stark: “There is no time to lose”, the Pope said as he berated the oil industry for not doing enough transitioning to clean energy.
The meeting came three years after the Pope had penned a letter on the global crisis posed by climate change, and called for urgent action. Some three years on Big Oil just carries on drilling, something not lost on the Pope.
It is worth quoting the Pope at length for his thoughtful address. “The energy question has become one of the principal challenges, in theory and in practice, facing the international community” he said.
He added: “The way we meet this challenge will determine our overall quality of life and the real possibility either of resolving conflicts in different areas of our world or, on account of grave environmental imbalances and lack of access to energy, providing them with new fuel to destroy social stability and human lives. “
In a pointed barb at the oil industry, he continued: “In this regard, it is important that serious efforts be made to transition to a greater use of energy sources that are highly efficient while producing low levels of pollution.”
Warning that this was a “challenge of epochal proportions” it was also “an immense opportunity to encourage efforts to ensure fuller access to energy by less developed countries, especially in outlying areas, as well as to diversify energy sources and promote the sustainable development of renewable forms of energy.”
He continued: “As you know, in December 2015, 196 Nations negotiated and adopted the Paris Agreement, with a firm resolve to limit the growth in global warming to below 2° centigrade, based on preindustrial levels, and, if possible, to below 1.5° centigrade. Some two-and-a-half years later, carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases remain very high. This is disturbing and a cause for real concern.”
Yet again he criticised the antics of Big Oil, noting that, despite rising carbon dioxide levels, “even more worrying is the continued search for new fossil fuel reserves, whereas the Paris Agreement clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground.”
The Pope urged everyone to “talk together – industry, investors, researchers and consumers – about transition and the search for alternatives. Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!”
He did concede that “Progress has indeed been made on alternatives, “but with each month that passes, the challenge of energy transition becomes more pressing.”
He also really emphasised the point that the poor will bear the brunt of climate change. “The effects of climate change are not evenly distributed”, the Pope said: “It is the poor who suffer most from the ravages of global warming, with increasing disruption in the agricultural sector, water insecurity, and exposure to severe weather events.”
He finished by saying: “I invite you to be the core of a group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems. Let this be seen as the greatest leadership opportunity of all, one that can make a lasting difference for the human family, and one that can appeal to your boldest dreams and ideas.”
“There is no time to lose: We received the earth as a garden-home from the Creator; let us not pass it on to future generations as a wilderness”.
The Pope’s intervention was welcomed. One of those at the meeting was Mark Campanale from Carbon Tracker. He says that the Pope’s address was really articulating “the cry of the poor” and how many poor Catholic communities will suffer due to climate change. “They really understand that” says Campanale. “They are looking at this from a people’s perspective. They are really driving that part of the agenda forward.”
Neil Thorns, director of advocacy at Catholic aid agency CAFOD, applauded the Pope for “preaching to the not-yet-converted”, adding that the Pope asks “why anyone would want to be remembered for failing to act when the world’s poorest people are being pushed deeper into poverty by climate change. It’s a question fossil fuel executives would do well to ask themselves.”