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Pope Francis takes on climate change and rankles the American right

Nur Laiq | Updated on: 24 June 2015, 11:27 IST

Pope Francis has given a clarion call for revolution. The pontiff has appealed that the issue of climate change must be taken more seriously.

But his message has already sparked a counter-revolution, led by the global warming naysayers on the American right.

Environmental worries

The Pope's environmental manifesto takes on "the model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels", and the destruction it, along with rampant capitalism, is wreaking on our planet.

It goes into an in depth examination of natural disasters caused by extreme weather patterns, air and water pollution and rising sea levels, which the Pope says impact the poor, above all.

The document is based on the work of dozens of scientists and theologians and calls for a dramatic change in "lifestyle, production and consumption", in order to save the planet and prevent both an environmental and social crisis.

The letter flows from the scientific to the religious to the downright homely, with the Pope advising that it's best to take the bus.

The Pope's letter calls for a dramatic change in "lifestyle, production and consumption" to save the planet

It all sounds sensible enough. It is also not particularly radical, either in its science or its politics, when compared to other Vatican edicts.

Take Pope John Paul II's acceptance of Galileo in 1992, following 350 years of the Church denying that the sun is at the centre of our solar system. Or take the Vatican's positions against the war in Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq.

Then there are also Pope Francis's own campaigns, which have taken on far more emotive issues, ranging from gay rights to brokering the detente between the US and Cuba.

Impact on American Catholics

But the key question is, what impact will it have on America's Catholic conservatives, who will likely be torn between the Pope and the denial of climate change?

The American right views the Pope's foray into the climate change debate with scepticism. Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio show host followed by millions, harrumphs: "Essentially, what this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party."

The Pope's letter has put Republican politicians in a difficult spot. Their party denies climate change, is passionate about oil drilling and is committed to industrial growth that is unhampered by regulations, especially of the environmental sort.

Pope Francis is popular among American Catholics, who make up 20% of the population and are considered a key swing group in American politics. Their vote counts and it is election season in America, with presidential primary campaigns underway.

Presidential hopefuls react

Republican politicians, who can normally count on a chunk of this vote, are worried about the impact of the Pope's letter. If Catholics are swayed by the Pope's argument, how will these candidates reconcile their Catholic constituency with the industrialists whose support they also rely upon?

Most are being cautious for the moment. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who is Catholic, argues that climate change is a political, not a moral issue, thus implying that the Pope has no authority when it comes to this debate.

Another Catholic presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush, says: "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my Pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm."

According to Pew Polls, the Pope has an approval rating of 86 percent among American Catholics. The rating of Republican presidential candidates is unknown. At the moment, it is they who have been put on the defensive by the Pope's call for environmental justice.

Impact on the world

Some American bishops are already calling it a "game changer". The President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Joseph Kurtz, views the Pope's message as "our marching orders for advocacy".

This is of significance not only for the elections but also for the Republican position on the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December, which will be attended by representatives of almost 200 countries. The Republican resistance in Congress and the Senate to America reducing its emissions will tie President Obama's hands at the Paris talks.

Will the Pope's "marching orders" to Catholics create a grassroots swell that's strong enough to influence the Republican stance? If it does, and if the US commits to cutting emissions, this is bound to have an impact on the Chinese and Indian positions at the Paris talks.

The debate is clearly just beginning, its outcome remains to be seen. But either way, America's Catholic community and the decision it makes will have an influence that extends beyond America to the rest of the world.

First published: 24 June 2015, 11:34 IST
Nur Laiq @NurLaiq

A visiting researcher at Georgetown University, Washington, Nur is Assistant Editor, Politics, at Catch News. She's also working on a book on the Arab Spring. Previously chief content officer for the Congress Party for social media during the 2014 general election, she has also been a senior policy analyst at the International Peace Institute, a think-tank linked to the UN in New York. At other stages of her career, she has worked for a Labour Party member of parliament in London and on foreign policy at the European Commission in Brussels. Nur is co-editor of The Search for Peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2014) and author of Talking to Arab Youth: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Egypt and Tunisia (International Peace Institute, 2013).