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Pope’s climate-change encyclical puts GOP candidates in an awkward place

The pope’s long awaited, often eloquent and sometimes baffling encyclical is sweeping in its breadth, and overtly political in its implications.

If Pope Francis can’t offer an all-encompassing vision of how human beings should behave, who can?
REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

So, it’s official. Pope Francis believes that climate change is largely man made.

Furthermore, he believes it to be a symptom of something deeply wrong in our relationship with our “Sister Earth,” and with each other.

On Thursday, the Vatican released the pope’s long awaited, often eloquent and sometimes baffling (did he really need to go out of his way to criticize cap-and-trade systems?) encyclical on the subject. It is sweeping in its breadth, and overtly political in its implications.

Conservative bomb-throwers approached it with matches lit: “Pope fiddles” while “our spiritual culture is burning.” Or, the pope’s insistence that climate change is an outgrowth of our system of economics, and disproportionately affects the poor confirms he’s a closet Marxist.

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The heated rhetoric from the right was one indication of a real dilemma for Republican presidential candidates – many of whom are Catholics. In a nutshell: Do you distance yourself from the pope? Or from your political base, where skepticism of the link between global warming and human activity abounds? The prospects for a meaningful international agreement on climate change, and the long-term impact of the pope’s message may depend on how they answer.

You can read the encyclical, “Laudato Si” (“Be Praised”), for yourself. If you don’t want to go through its nearly 200 pages, there’s also a Vatican Information Service overview. And the excerpts annotated by New York Times correspondents are also useful.

It has been clear for months that the Vatican has been aiming this encyclical both in its content and timing to push forward negotiations on a worldwide agreement to limit the release of greenhouse gases and help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change. 

The U.N. is gearing for a major conference in Paris late this year, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warmly endorsed the Vatican’s approach. So have most environmentalists.

Much of the criticism revolves around variations on a single question: Is this how the pope should be spending his time?

Actually, you can’t blame Francis for dabbling in public policy.  There are few important political issues that don’t have a moral aspect to them – even if we disagree about which policy leads to the most moral outcome. And if the pope (agree with him or not) can’t offer an all-encompassing vision of how human beings should behave, who can?

However, many of us — and this includes Catholics — have become pretty selective about which religious teachings we choose to follow.  Religious leaders – and this definitely includes the Catholic hierarchy – also have a lot to answer for (see Nienstedt, John).

It may be harder for Republicans, but when Rick Santorum advises the pope to keep out of science, or Jeb Bush says that he doesn’t get his economic policy from his bishop (and by implication, his environmental policy from the pope), they are slicing and dicing church teachings to match their world view. It looks similar to how more liberal Catholics find ways around church teachings on issues like birth control.

There are plenty of people to argue about who’s right, who’s more sincere, and who just wants to justify what they’ve already decided they want to do. The point is that one of these Republican candidates could end up having an outsized influence on the future of the climate talks, and on any agreement that comes out of them.

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That’s because: 

—There can be no serious climate agreement without the United States. The United States and China are the two biggest players in these negotiations because of the amount they contribute to global warming. They will also have to help craft a system for helping poorer countries cope.

And:

—Although the United Nations is aiming for an agreement this year, and President Obama has pursued a number of policies aimed at cutting emissions, he will be out of office in early 2017. Implementation of any agreement would certainly take many years, and largely fall in the hands of his successor.

Remember what George W. Bush did about the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court? President Clinton signed in 2000. Two years later, the Bush administration pulled the U.S. out of the treaty. Bush also pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow. So there is precedent to reverse course.

The international court has gone on. But it’s hard to see how an effective agreement about climate change could survive without American participation. The European Union would probably stay the course; maybe some others.

In a highly competitive and unsettled world, what incentive would there be for China or other major polluters if the industrial and economic might of the United States were outside the treaty? Altruism only takes you so far.