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Can the pope bridge the climate divide?

Catholics in the West are responding to his call. Will Congress?


Pope Francis, in his first-ever visit to the United States in late September, lauded President Barack Obama’s response to climate change and challenged Congress to take “courageous action.” But it’s going to take a lot more than the pontiff’s passionate plea to bridge the wide divide between Republicans and Democrats. Not only have congressional Republicans — and some Democrats from fossil-fuel states — blocked comprehensive climate legislation for many years, but some are also trying to undermine Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector.

Even if Francis has yet to accomplish the miracle of reconciling U.S. politicians’ wildly divergent views on climate change, he still may play a transformational role by inspiring ordinary Catholics in the American West — and around the globe — to take the health of the planet more seriously and even to start voting for candidates who prioritize slashing emissions.-

Still, the pope clearly wants to influence the political elite. He not only urged Congress to steer the nation away from fossil fuels and the destruction of ecosystems, he also implored political leaders to stop feuding. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” he said.

And he added a note of optimism, saying, “I’m convinced that we can make a difference. I’m sure,” a statement that provoked long applause and a standing ovation from many of the congressional representatives, Supreme Court justices and cabinet members gathered in the Capitol.

The pope has already started to inspire change in local church congregations, in the West and elsewhere, with his encyclical Laudato Si’, which was released this summer. Pedro Lopez, for example, works for the League of Conservation Voters in Arizona. Before the pope unveiled his encyclical, Lopez and his team would attend mostly Latino Catholic churches around Phoenix and struggle to connect the priests’ messages with climate change in short talks after Mass. “Now that we have the encyclical, it’s an open door for us to make a call to action to Catholics,” Lopez says.

Some priests have even begun to do the activists’ work for them, summarizing the encyclical for their congregations and encouraging members to pray and work to solve the climate crisis. Lopez believes that, in time, the pope’s message will inspire Latinos, who represent a growing share of eligible voters, to support candidates who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ushering in renewable energy. “We can change the whole political landscape,” he says.

Democratic senators are hoping for just such a shift: They introduced a new climate change bill — deliberately timed for the pope’s visit — that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationwide by at least 2 percent a year, provide more tax incentives for renewable energy and remove some fossil fuel subsidies.

Western Republicans’ responses to the pope’s visit ran the gamut. Just prior to it, 11 Republicans, including David Reichert, D-Wash., introduced a resolution to address the causes and effects of “measured changes to our global and regional climates including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.”

On the other extreme, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., decided to boycott Francis’ historic speech, the first time a pope has addressed the U.S. Congress. “If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time. But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous,” Gosar wrote at the conservative website Townhall.com.  

Nor did the first Jesuit pope sway Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, R, who was taught by Jesuits. “The pope speaks for the Lord when it comes to matters of faith or morality, but not on issues of economics or the environment,” Barrasso told Fox News. Barrasso then attacked the Democrats’ new climate bill, saying it would weaken the economy and make electric power less reliable.

If the pope could move any congressional Republican, it may be Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee. Murkowski, a Catholic, recorded a video about her encounter with Francis, who briefly held her hands when he was in the Capitol on the way to give his speech. “It was a moment I will always remember; the feeling of his presence; the love that this man radiates. It was extraordinary,” Murkowski said. Her statement echoed the pope’s call for “dialogue,” but avoided mentioning climate change, which has already impacted her state especially hard (see story page 12).

Some Western Democrats, however, seemed hopeful that Francis’ words will resonate long after the media excitement dies down. “The pope gave an enormous wakeup call today to everyone who thinks unregulated consumption is an unending free ride. Now we need to turn that wakeup call into lasting action,” said Rep Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said: “This is an important moment for our country. When the pope speaks, we all listen.”