How the Pope Could Turn U.S. Climate Politics Upside Down

One chart shows how Christians think about climate change (Al Gore) and why Francis wants them to think about it differently (their souls)

A village near the coal mines of Jharia, India, where methane and other toxic gases spew from open wounds in the earth's crust.

A village near the coal mines of Jharia, India, where methane and other toxic gases spew from open wounds in the earth's crust.

Photographer: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Pope Francis is about to release a much-anticipated letter to bishops about faith and climate change. If it has the impact he's counting on, it could finally budge a glacier of frozen thinking on the crisis. It could break through to millions of Americans who thought they knew what they thought about global warming.

Here's how he's trying to pull this off.

Think about the people you associate with climate change. Al Gore and environmental activists. Al Gore and big-government liberals. UN diplomats. Impenetrable scientists. Al Gore.

You're not alone, whatever your religious faith and whoever you are. Environmentalists and scientists have prattled on about global warming for a generation. No wonder many people think about it this way, even though projections of potentially catastrophic consequences—given desperately needed currency in 2006 by Gore in a landmark documentary—are widely credited and very real.

This chart shows how deeply the traditional associations are embedded in the minds of American Christians. The polling data come from a March report by Yale and George Mason university researchers, called Climate Change in the American Christian Mind

This mindset is an artifact of recent history. It's understandable, but there is no reason climate change must be considered an overwhelmingly environmental or scientific issue, when business, military, and religious leaders well before Pope Francis have thought otherwise for years.

Corporate strategy is evolving because executives see business threats and opportunities in global change, from Apple's push into renewable power, to Unilever's all-encompassing Sustainable Living program, to DuPont's and Monsanto's sale of corn seed in Manitoba, where conditions have never enabled its growth before. More than 150 companies that report their greenhouse gas emissions annually to the research nonprofit CDP maintain an internal "shadow" carbon price to identify where they can cut emissions.

The Pentagon sees climate change as a national security issue. Planners wrote in their 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review: "The impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities."

Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
Photographer: Giulio Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis sees it as an issue intrinsic to morality, social justice, and theology. Papal statements on the environment go back at least to 1971. Pope John Paul II spoke of “human ecology” and the sacred earth throughout his pontificate, from the late ’70s until his death in 2005. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a 5,100-word call to action on climate change in 2001. Now Francis hopes the time is right to catalyze all that doctrine in the minds of the faithful. Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Vatican's social justice policy council, addressed a meeting of economists, business executives, and policymakers in May at the launch of a study by the New Climate Economy research initiative. We're not doing a good job tending the garden, he said, and "if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, we are on the road to ruin." 

Climate change is about to join the list of things faith leaders are always on our case about. Are the values celebrated in church preeminent in the workplace? Is our lifestyle consistent with what we believe? These are questions Francis wants Catholics, and everybody else, to begin asking themselves when it comes to global warming and global poverty, closely related issues.  

“This is not about Al Gore,” says Mitch Hescox, head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which promotes care of the earth among evangelical Christians. “This is about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

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