Pope Francis versus the climate change deniers

     Pope Francis delivers his message during the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo)

    Pope Francis delivers his message during the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo)

    Do the climate change deniers seem more ridiculous than ever? Gee, I dunno, is the pope Catholic?Actually, Pope Francis himself is making them look more ridiculous and isolated than ever. He’s poised to put his moral imprimatur on the scientific consensus about man-made climate change, with a much-anticipated summer encyclical, and this is driving the conservative deniers batty. It’s also putting Republicans, most notably Catholic presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, in a very awkward position. They’ve got to keep pandering to the anti-science nuts in The Base without appearing to diss the popular pro-science pontiff.

    The pope has been discomfiting the deniers since last winter, when he cited human activity as a key factor in climate change: “In great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face. We have in a sense taken over nature.” Cardinal Peter Turkson, a top Vatican official, says the pope “is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little.”

    And yesterday, at a Vatican summit meeting, religious and science leaders (along with business and political leaders) released a joint statement. The key quote: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

    Best of all, Pope Francis is slated to address Congress in September (roughly 30 percent of its members are Catholic), at the express invitation of John Boehner. Buy your popcorn now. As the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, told the press the other day, “I think Boehner was out of his mind to invite the pope….Can you imagine what the Republicans will do when he says, ‘You’ve got to do something about global warming?'”

    What they’ll do, of course, is dismiss and deny. Yes, the pope has great moral power (and a grassroots global following, thanks to his social media savvy), and yes, he’s helping to build momentum for a United Nations climate change accord in December, but hey. Republicans are shackled to the junk-science think tanks and to deep-pocket fossil fuel moguls like the Koch brothers (who bankroll a lot of the think tanks).

    Their only other strategy is to stay mum while deniers attack the pope. Hence, Steve Moore at the Heritage Foundation: “Pope Francis – and I say this as a Catholic – is a complete disaster when it comes to his public policy pronouncements.” And Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute: “The Holy Father is being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations.” And Catholic scholar Robert George in the Catholic journal First Things: “The pope has no special knowledge, insight, or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact.”  And Maureen Mullarkey, also in First Things: “He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.”

    Best of all, the right-wing Breitbart News gave us a gem yesterday. A Breitbart attack dog said that Pope Francis is being snookered about science just like Pope Clement VII was snookered about science in 1484. Back then, the consensus was that fallow crops were caused by witches. Breitbart quoted Clement: “It is reasonable to conclude that, just as easily as they raise hailstorms, so can they cause lightning and storms at sea; and so no doubt at all remains on these points.” Therefore, according to Breitbart logic, Pope Francis is foolish to embrace “the climate alarmist establishment.”

    Um. We should merely note that scientific methodology has advanced a tad since 1484.

    So rest assured that Catholics like Rubio, Bush, and Rick Santorum (if the latter runs) will find ways to distance themselves from their pope, and continue to rhetorically finesse their isolation from the American mainstream. After all, with primary season on the horizon, it’s imperative that they hew to this mentality. According to Gallup, only 27 percent of conservative Republicans believe that humans cause climate change, and only 37 percent believe that climate change effects will occur in their lifetime (on both issues, the rest of the population feels otherwise).

    Still, the pope’s recognition of reality is not good news for the practitioners of magical thinking. As Father James Martin, an editor at the Catholic magazine America, said yesterday, the pope’s science-based encyclical will put the squeeze on denier-politicians: “That’s going to be very difficult for people to rebut. You might say, ‘I don’t agree with this,’ but you cannot say, ‘This has no authority.’ You just can’t.”

     

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.