Pope Francis’s visit to the United States this fall will give him an important stage to push for climate change policies, in a year when global warming is shaping up to be a central issue both for the Vatican and Washington.
Francis’s visit, which he told reporters this week will almost certainly include visits to both D.C. and United Nations headquarters in New York, will come only a few months after he is scheduled to issue an encyclical urging Catholics to fight climate change.
He’ll also use the encyclical — a decree of sorts — to push United Nations leaders to be tough in December when they work to write an international agreement to reduce emissions and help poorer countries adapt.
Francis’s visit will also come as leaders in the United States debate what to do about climate change and fight over the Obama administration’s proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the most ambitious move yet to reduce global warming in this country.
Since being named the Catholic Church’s leader in March 2013, the Argentine native has made climate change a top priority, and he’s unlikely to stop that streak on his September trip.
“I would give it a 100 percent certainty that those issues will come up, especially when he addresses the UN,” said Christiana Peppard, a theology professor at Fordham University who has studied the Catholic Church’s involvement in various environmental causes going back to the 1960s.
“I think that he wants to, and is able to, exert some political pressure, but primarily a sort of rhetorical and moral pressure, on what the Vatican calls super-developed nations, to take up their share of responsibility,” Peppard said.
Peppard said Francis is unlikely to wade into the politics within the United States government on issues like cutting carbon or whether an international agreement should be subject to congressional approval.
While Francis is not the first pope to make protecting the environment a priority, he enjoys a popularity and digital presence unlike any of his predecessors.
That gives him a unique venue to express his climate change views, angering conservative Catholics in the United States and elsewhere.
“If he does end up talking to Congress or folks on the hill, I would be absolutely shocked if climate change and developed nations’ obligations don’t come up,” Peppard said. “He really is making it one of his major moral points for 2015.”
Vatican leaders first revealed in December that Francis was working on an encyclical, due out in the summer.
Francis himself told reporters more recently that he believes climate change is mostly man’s fault, an opinion that clashes with conservative Republicans.
“I don’t know if it is all [man’s fault] but the majority is, for the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature,” he said.
While few national policymakers have openly questioned the pope’s climate change focus, conservative pundits have not held back.
“Well, this pope sure has got his priorities right,” Rush Limbaugh said mockingly on his radio show. “Climate change, the biggest thing facing Catholicism and Christianity. You believe this?”
Steve Moore, chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, wrote, “on the economy, and even more so on the environment, the pope has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.”
Peppard said the church’s climate change positions stem mostly from its desire to improve living conditions for people across the world, though mostly poor and underrepresented groups, such as those in poor countries who would be hurt the most from the effects of climate change.
“The fact of the matter is that he’s not departing from Catholic teaching,” she said.
But Francis, and the church, also believe that the most developed countries ought to bear the highest responsibilities to fight climate change.
“Those of us living in industrialized countries have benefited disproportionately from fossil fuel economies, while the effects of anthropogenic climate change … tend to fall on people who are not in those industrialized countries,” Peppard said.
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