Pope Francis urged oil and finance chiefs to back a faster transition to clean energy at a conference in the Vatican on Saturday.
Addressing an audience including the heads of Exxon Mobil, Eni and BP, the head of the Catholic Church said rising greenhouse gas levels were “disturbing and a cause for real concern”.
“Yet even more worrying is the continued search for new fossil fuel reserves, whereas the Paris Agreement clearly urged keeping most fossil fuels underground,” he said.
“This is why we need 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.”
In a similar vein to his 2015 letter to Catholics on climate change, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis called on the energy majors to show care for God’s creation.
Oil companies argue their product will be needed for decades, to lift people out of poverty. The Pope acknowledged the latent demand for energy but said it must not come at the cost of the environment.
“Our desire to ensure energy for all must not lead to the undesired effect of a spiral of extreme climate changes due to a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, harsher environments and increased levels of poverty,” he said.
Analysts estimate at least two thirds of proven coal, oil and gas reserves need to stay in the ground to hold global warming below 2C, the goal of the Paris Agreement.
Neil Thorns, director of advocacy at Catholic aid agency CAFOD, welcomed the Pope “preaching to the not-yet-converted”.
“Francis reminds us in his encyclical that ‘Business is a noble vocation’, but also 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,” he said.
“If energy companies are serious about caring for our common home, they need to take the Pope’s advice and hurry up with shifting their priorities – and therefore their money – from fossil fuels to renewables.”
Research suggests the Pope’s climate message has inspired and motivated liberal Catholics but not swayed conservative Catholics in the US, a demographic sceptical of human influence on the climate.