Can Pope Francis Transform the Climate Change Debate?
Policy + Politics

Can Pope Francis Transform the Climate Change Debate?

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Pope Francis received a warm response at the White House Wednesday morning while delivering a brief speech calling for government action to combat global warming – much to the delight of President Obama, who stood at his side.

“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” the pontiff said to a warm round of applause. “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”

Related: Pope Francis Is Stirring the Political Pot on Global Warming

“When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history,” he added. “We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”

But Francis is likely to get a more muted response to his call for action on climate change Thursday morning, when he delivers an historic address to Congress. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who invited the pope to speak, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and many other Republicans in both chambers are ardent foes of Obama’s ambitious proposals for reducing carbon emissions.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) recently announced he would boycott Francis’s address to a joint meeting of the House and Senate because he said the pope was promoting “questionable science.” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told The Guardian yesterday that she hopes the pope doesn’t veer into controversial public policy discussions but instead offers some “uplifting message about how we can all help the most vulnerable in our society.”

"I'll certainly listen respectfully, but I don't think that his speech is going to change my mind on it," Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the GOP leadership and a skeptic on climate science, told Politico.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Obama’s New Carbon Rule

In a relatively short time Pope Francis has earned wide-spread admiration for his modesty and concerns for the poor and oppressed as well as his liberal pronouncements on a broad range of issues, from same-sex marriage and the excesses of capitalism to the threat of climate change.  However, while addressing lawmakers from both parties on super-charged issues such as climate change, the pope may have to walk a fine line between spiritual leader and public policy advocate. 

Over the past decade, Republicans and Democrats have battled over environmental policy, particularly over efforts to cut the rate of growth of industrial carbon emissions that the GOP and business leaders have argued would adversely impact the economy and jobs. At the same time, many conservatives dispute that climate change is real or that it poses serious risks to the environment.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has written and spoken widely on how the earth’s temperature isn’t rising and that global warming is a “hoax.”

However, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, told The Guardian that he believes the pope’s call to action will make it more difficult for Republicans to continue to dismiss scientific findings that coal-fired power plants and similar facilities directly contribute to climate change.

Related: King Coal’ McConnell Wants to Scrap Obama’s Carbon Plan

Brian Deese, the senior White House adviser to Obama on environmental issues, told the Fiscal Times this week that “The Pope has established himself as a global voice and a global leader on this issue.”

“And I think that he has enlivened an incredible debate,” Deese added. “So his influence can’t be overstated.”

There already have been a few signs that the once nearly unified GOP opposition to global warming measures has begun to crack.

Last January, during a debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, 15 Senate Republicans – including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – voted for a resolution declaring that humans contribute to climate change. Five of those Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — also voted in favor of a resolution declaring that humans contribute significantly to climate change.

 Related: GOP Leaders Fume over Obama’s Climate Deal with China 

Some environmentalists told the Fiscal Times at the time that they were encouraged by those votes, although they didn’t hold out much hope for bipartisan environmental legislation anytime in the foreseeable future.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader, won reelection last November in coal-rich Kentucky by vowing to block or undo Environmental Protection Agency regulations that harm the coal industry. He has joined with state officials in opposing the administration’s new Clean Power Plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Republicans and the business community are also gearing up to oppose new EPA smog rules due out in October.

In June, Francis issued a papal encyclical on climate change and the environment in which he declared the international fight against global warming a moral imperative and "one of the principal challenges facing humanity."

Related: How Climate Change Costs Could Soar to the Billions 

Some political and environmental experts view the 180-page document as a milestone in the global climate debate, because of the enormous influence the pope’s words have with many of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

However, many Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail who oppose Obama’s environmental policies were unmoved by the pope’s call for action.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a Catholic, questioned whether the pope was qualified to venture into divisive political issues like global warming.  "I don't get economic policies from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," Bush said at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire shortly after Francis released his paper.  "I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm."

During the second GOP presidential campaign in California a week ago, other Catholic candidates including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida were equally harsh in dismissing proposals for combating global warming.

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“Here’s the bottom line,” Rubio said in a response to a question about why Republicans don’t join with the Democrats to take steps to control climate change as an insurance policy in case mainstream scientists are right about the threat.

“Every proposal they put forward will make it harder to do business in America. Harder to create jobs in America. Single parents are already struggling across this country to provide for their families. Maybe a billionaire here in California can afford an increase in their utility rates, but a working family in Tampa, Florida or anywhere across the country cannot afford it.”