Pope Francis underscores President Obama’s message on climate change

By Evan Lehmann, Elizabeth Harball | 09/24/2015 08:31 AM EDT

The pope’s unusual endorsement of the nation’s climate rules yesterday handed President Obama the rarest kind of support for a program being targeted by Republicans running for the highest office. Yet some scholars warned against exploiting the pontiff’s message for political appeal.

The pope’s unusual endorsement of the nation’s climate rules yesterday handed President Obama the rarest kind of support for a program being targeted by Republicans running for the highest office. Yet some scholars warned against exploiting the pontiff’s message for political appeal.

Pope Francis said it’s "encouraging" that Obama is addressing "air pollution." It was widely interpreted as a reference to the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to cut electricity emissions 32 percent over the next 15 years.

It prompted some environmentalists to celebrate. Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said "wow" in a tweet about the pope’s comments. "That’s just sinking in."


Leading GOP presidential candidates, meanwhile, were silent. The campaigns for Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Obama and Pope Francis.
Kindred spirits on climate change: President Obama shakes hands with Pope Francis after Obama’s welcoming speech on the South Lawn of the White House. | Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais, courtesy of AP Images.

The papal message yesterday diverges sharply from the views of some of those candidates.

Rubio said earlier this month that if elected he would reverse the Clean Power Plan, saying it’s "one of the most costly regulations ever created" and that it would have "little to no environmental benefit."

That seems to contrast with the pope’s assessment that the Clean Power Plan represents a new "urgency" to act on climate change.

"We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change," Pope Francis said yesterday at the White House. "Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them."

Some experts who have been carefully watching the pope’s wording on climate disagree that the Catholic leader endorsed the Clean Power Plan.

"It was quite unusual for a pope to mention something so specific," said Anthony Annett, a climate change and sustainable development adviser at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who is also affiliated with the nonprofit Religions for Peace.

Challenge from a trusted leader

But, Annett added, "I actually don’t think he was addressing policy there." Instead, he thinks the mention of Obama’s climate regulations was probably intended as an example to prop up his broader message that the United States should continue to pursue a role as a global leader on climate change.

"I think he is going to be asking Americans to show leadership and show action in this area," Annett said.

Whatever his intention, the pope lent his support to a politically controversial program. And he happens to be one of the most trusted figures in the world. His approval ratings easily outreach those of any politician, with more than 80 percent of Catholic Americans supporting him.

People of other faiths, or none, are also drawn to Francis. A Pew Research Center poll found last winter that 68 percent of respondents with no religious affiliation approve of him. Obama’s approval rating this week is 46 percent. For Congress, it was 14 percent last month.

Richard Garnett, a professor who specializes in religion at the University of Notre Dame law school, said it’s not uncommon for popes to weigh in on public policy. Pope John Paul II mediated a border dispute between Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, he said, and the Vatican endorsed Obama’s effort to ban assault weapons in 2013.

"For him, these are not inconsistent or even separate matters; for him, the views that Democrats will applaud and the positions that Republicans will cheer are coming from the same place," Garnett said in an email. "That is why his message is so challenging. He’s not looking to affirm politicians or make them feel comfortable."

‘On the right side of a lot of stuff’

White House officials yesterday did not overplay the pope’s support, an act that observers say could backfire if the public believes a politician is trying to gain an advantage from his moral message.

Others see the pope’s arguments as being in line with their own. The campaign themes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s climbing in presidential polling, are similar to Francis’ messages on income inequality and climate change.

"He doesn’t have to do this," Sanders said yesterday on CNN. "He could play it a lot easier. But he is saying the planet is at stake. Fossil fuel is contributing significantly to climate change. We have got to address it. And that’s what I admire about him, his audacity and his courage."

But Francis’ message also challenges Democratic positions. Even as he encourages climate action, the pope also speaks against abortion, at a time when some Republicans are threatening to shut down the government to block funding for Planned Parenthood.

In that way, the pontiff seems to rise above political side-taking by speaking as an unbiased patriarch. Addressing bishops yesterday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the pope managed to crisscross ideological lines.

He said: "The innocent victim of abortion; children who die of hunger or from bombings; immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow; the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden; the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking; the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature — at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters."

Obama, for his part, might see the pope as a kindred spirit. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this month, when the president was visiting Alaska, Obama said, "I really like the pope.

"Yes, he’s a good man," he added, when asked if it was a personal connection. "And he’s on the right side of a lot of stuff."