THE BLOG

The Pope's Encyclical on Climate Change and What It Means for U.S. Politics

06/22/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Pope Francis has released a profound and inspiring encyclical on the moral obligation to confront climate change. It urges us to heed nature's warnings. And it calls on us to tackle the climate threat in the name of justice, human dignity and service to the poor and most vulnerable among us.

As a devoted Christian, I am deeply moved by the pope's wisdom. As a political junkie, I am intrigued by what it means for the American conversation on climate change.

To be clear, Pope Francis is not wading into partisan debates. His gaze is rightly focused on more transcendent vistas and eternal values. But given his stature and moral authority, this encyclical is bound to shape the U.S. political landscape.

After all, it arrives just as the presidential race is kicking into gear. Seven of the declared or likely candidates are Catholic, and nearly all refer to their Christian faith regularly. Yet only two of the GOP candidates acknowledge the science of climate change: Senator Lindsay Graham and Former New York Governor George Pataki. The Republican leadership in Congress, meanwhile, remains bent on denying climate change and blocking every effort to reduce carbon pollution.

Pope Francis stands above this scrum of climate denial and obstruction. He embodies a spirit of hope, humility and service that many are hungry for.  A full 70 percent of all Americans -- including 68 percent of the nonreligious -- view the pope favorably, and 90 percent of American Catholics do, according to the Pew Research Center.

A person who is this admired, who is calling on our better angels and emphasizing our duty to protect creation and the poor who will be most adversely affected by climate change impacts, has the power to shake things up. Here are three key elements in the next election that could feel the effects.

  1. The Koch Brothers
The Koch brothers aren't just funding the fossil fuel opposition, they are funding a lot of churches and universities.  Earlier this year, the Charles Koch foundation gave $1.75 million to Catholic University of America, part of a $3 million pledge to the university.  The money is to be used to create a school of business and economics.  One must wonder what the curriculum will be since the Koch Brothers promote the same unregulated capitalism Pope Francis has railed against in the past.

As the pope establishes climate action as a moral imperative among Christians, the Kochs' climate obstruction may lose its appeal among the faithful. It will matter how Catholics react and whether this will drive a wedge between the Tea Party movement and the religious community.  A major wedge could hurt voter enthusiasm in the Republican Party.

  1. Religious Youth
Pope Francis will travel to the United States in September, and his public events will likely be packed with young people. My husband still remembers attending Pope John Paul II's American events with thousands of other youth groups. In the age of social media, the current (and tweeting) Pontifex has already connected with young people. These kids have grown up learning about climate science, and now the Pope is placing climate action within the realm of religious duty.  The Pope will address Congress during his trip.  These kinds of speeches to Congress often turns into a mock kid's baseball games where side stands up with thunderous applause and the other pretends to hear crickets as each side "scores".  When Pope Francis calls for our leaders to act like statesmen by leading on climate -- a catastrophe that is hurting our world's poor disproportionately -- who will stand up and applaud and who will look to the ground?  What will that image mean to our nation's youth?

This could make the GOP's youth problem even worse. Former Governor Mitt Romney lost young voters by 26 percentage points in the last race, and in the 2014 midterms, voters under 30 favored Democrats by a 13-point margin. Young Catholics who have rallied around conservative social issues may now be throwing their energy behind climate justice and carbon limits. GOP candidates who refute the very existence of global warming will look like dinosaurs to them.

  1. GOP Candidates
Many GOP candidates make faith a central part of their campaign narrative. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Gov. Chris Christie are all claiming faith as central to why they want to run (or gear up to run).  What will these men say now that the Successor of Peter has made the moral case for climate action? How will they respond when the Pope addresses Congress in September and likely underscores the need to reduce climate change pollution? Some Republicans may try a variation on their "I'm not a scientist" refrain and claim the Vatican shouldn't weigh in on scientific matters. That's like saying the Pope shouldn't minister to the poor because he isn't an economist (the Pope does in fact have a masters in chemistry, much to Rick Santorum's chagrin).

This encyclical is not about science. It's about our moral duty to shield people from harm and preserve creation for future generations. Now that a globally admired religious leader is shining a spotlight on this duty, it will become harder for GOP candidates to ignore the climate crisis. They may still fail to offer any solutions, but this encyclical provides one more reason why a climate denier can't win the White House in 2016.