Can The Pope Give Republicans Religion On Climate?

Bill Scher

Twenty years ago Pope John Paul II delivered an encyclical, an authoritative letter to all Catholic bishops, that urged them to champion a “culture of life,” by opposing abortion, contraception, euthanasia, war and capital punishment.

Republican politicians quickly embraced the Pope’s message. For the next several years, they wrapped their social conservatism around the “culture of life” concept (conveniently leaving out the parts about bombs and executions).

Today, Pope Francis delivers another encyclical, urging bishops to speak out on the moral imperative to stop climate change. He says, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years … There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected”

Republicans may have a harder time with this one.

Already conservative Catholic politicians are criticizing the Pope for daring to talk about science. “This is science, not theology,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “[W]e probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality,” said Rick Santorum.

The Vatican does leave the science to scientists, namely the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which conducts independent research and submits its findings to the Pope. It has been working on climate since 1980. When the science tells us that bad things are happening to our planet, and we as a society fail to heed the warning, the Pope has an obligation to call out the inaction as immoral.

Our politicians, practicing democracy under a system separating church and state, should not take a position just because a religious leader commands it. But the encyclical will make Republican resistance to the climate science even harder to maintain.

For years, the vast majority of American voters have accepted the science and concluded global warming is a serious problem. Perhaps then it is not surprising that Republicans failed in their attempts to derail Barack Obama’s presidency by trotting out the false choice between the environment and the economy.

“Drill Baby Drill” drove the 2008 Republican convention wild, but did not impress the nation’s swing voters. In 2012, Republicans tried to turn “Solyndra” into a scandal. But most voters were happy to see public investment in job-creating green technologies and understood that any form of entrepreneurship entails some risk.

Republicans trying to stoke economic fears were hampered by the albatross of their own horrible economic record of the previous decade. But you can’t blame them for trying. Climate politics remains treacherous ground. Two years ago in Australia, a backlash to a carbon tax led to the ouster of a Labor party government.

Aware of the risks, Obama has walked a delicate line to minimize any such backlash: pairing EPA regulations with plans for oil drilling, regulating but not banning fracking and taking it ever so slow on a Keystone pipeline decision. But throughout it all, Obama has staked his claim on cutting carbon emissions at home and establishing an international climate agreement as one of his legacy achievements. Republicans have tried swinging a blunt instrument to stop a nuanced approach, and repeatedly missed.

Now they will have to grapple with Obama’s legacy on the 2016 trail in the face of major headwind coming from the Pope, and his bishops who are going to drive his message in churches throughout America. And as the Pope fuses the moral case with the scientific case, a Republican donor is about to plow $175 million into pressuring his party to accept climate science.

The walls are closing in. Climate science deniers will have precious little ground left on which to stand besides that provided by the Flat Earth Society.

All the Republicans want to be seen as agents of change. But Catholic Sen. Marco Rubio is the one most desperately seeking the mantle of candidate of the future, while depicting Hillary Clinton as the candidate of “yesterday.” Yet in April Rubio was clinging to the ignorance of the past as he said: “Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe.”

There is no way to be the candidate of the future while pining for our fossil fuel-driven past. If the Pope can’t get them to understand that in 2016, it’s their loss.

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