Pope Francis will be the first leader of the Catholic Church to address a joint session of Congress. Take out the name “Francis”, and that sentence would be the subject of universal rejoicing among Catholics. Instead we get this: “[The Pope ought to] leave science to the scientists,” from former Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, or this “when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, he can be expected to be treated like one,” from Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona who intends to boycott the session.
Santurum, Gosar, and many other Catholic Republicans are in a snit because Francis intends to use this opportunity to spread the message of the threat of climate change that he laid out in his encyclical Laudate Si’ earlier this summer. This has led a number of Republicans, who loudly invoke religious authority when thundering on the evils of abortion or same sex marriage, to suddenly become passionate advocates of the separation of church and state. Beyond the amusing theater of politicians trying to pick and choose which Church doctrines they like – “Cafeteria Catholics,” as former Republican representative Bob Inglis calls them – there is the important question of what impact the Pope might have.
If he’s hoping to change minds, he has got his work cut out for him. In most of the world’s nations, Pope Francis’ acceptance of the reality of evolution and the threat posed by climate change seems nothing more than common sense. When he addresses the Republican-controlled Congress, however, he will be in a chamber where common sense (along with consistency, logic and a sense of proportion) must be checked at the door. A political party that can dismiss as a hoax or conspiracy the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists with expertise in climate is not suddenly going to change its position because a Pope says that he thinks the threat is real.
In the longer run, however, the Pope’s address marks the end of climate denialism as a viable political position. I suspect that many of the politicians venting against the Pope recognize this. It’s clear by now that many of the politicians and organizations that oppose action on climate change have long known that it is real threat, but have used the levers of political power and propaganda to protect profits or funding. Reporting by InsideClimate News revealed that Exxon’s own studies confirmed the threat in the 1970s (indeed one study estimated that a doubling of CO2 would raise global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius, very much in line with current estimates). Exxon, of course, has gone on to fund many of the organizations that spread disinformation about global warming.
Were the Pope only speaking to Congress, politicians might continue to bluster about hoaxes and liberal conspiracies, but the Pope’s message is going out to a billion Catholics around the world, and it is coming from the leader of a faith known for conservative positions on many social issues. As it stands, recent polling done by Pew Research Center suggests that Catholics are in line with Americans on awareness of global warming, but that only 24% of Republican Catholics think it is a serious problem.
Expect that number to rise as the millions of people the Pope is trying to reach come to their own conclusions by simply looking around their world. In the Arctic, they can see that their world is warming catastrophically, and not cooling as recently trumpeted by the deniers (a claim based on cherry-picking data on variations in seasonal sea ice). In the Mediterranean regions of the world, they can see that droughts are more persistent; in the mountains they can watch glaciers retreat and snow packs thin; and everywhere people can see that once-in-a-100-year weather extremes are coming in packs. These observations confirm the Pope’s message and contradict the denier’s view that everything is fine.
Changes in public opinion will put pressure on politicians, but I suspect that what will really tip the political balance will be the growing economic clout of alternative energy. Solar, wind, fuel cells, battery and other energy storage devices are beginning to go viral, and a basic metric for politicians is job creation, particularly in an economy where household incomes have stalled for decades. The growth of renewables offers politicians a way to embrace action on climate change without ever admitting that they were wrong.
So, rather than forcing change, the Pope’s encyclical and his address to a joint session of Congress mark a major inflection point in the protracted and agonizing struggle to address global warming. No one event will bring about change, but the combination of moral suasion by major religions; the undeniable changes in the world around us; the palpable costs of climate disruption; and the emergence of alternative energy as an economic engine of growth, suggest that the deniers’ rear guard actions are collapsing and that the world is mobilizing. The question remains: is it too late?
Eugene Linden, who for years covered global environmental issues for Time magazine, has written about climate change in books, articles, and essays since the late 1980s. He is the author of 9 books including, Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations.