What Can a Popular Pope Do About Climate Change? (The Atlantic)

The pontiff plans to issue a rare and controversial plea for Catholics to consider the environment. Recent polls show his message just might resonate.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Pope Francis has ambitious environmental plans for 2015. Come March, he will deliver a 50 to 60-page edict urging his 1.2 billion Catholic followers to take action against climate change. The Pontiff will make his announcement during his visit to the Philippine city of Tacloban, which was ravaged by typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands in 2013.

But within his global congregation, many conservative Catholics are expected to oppose the pope’s environmental views.

The message comes months in advance of the next United Nations climate meeting, which is slated to begin November 2015 in Paris. The pope’s lead scientific adviser Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, said that the pope’s message to his bishops, called an encyclical, is supposed to influence world leaders as they make their final recommendations after 20 years of negotiating how to reduce global carbon emissions, The Guardian reported. “The idea is to convene a meeting with leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate,” Sorondo said to Cafod, the Catholic development agency, of the pope’s plans.

Francis has previously pointed to the environment as being “one of the greatest challenges of our time,” and he says that Catholics have a moral and scientific obligation to protect it. But the move to publish an encyclical goes beyond offering a soundbite. “A papal encyclical is rare. It is among the highest levels of a pope’s authority,” Dan Misleh, director of the Catholic climate covenant, said to The Guardian. The pope will distribute the lengthy document to 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will then share the message with their congregations in churches across the world.

In the United States, where climate change is a controversial topic, the majority of Catholics agree that the Earth is getting warmer, about a third of that group did not believe that the change is due to human activity, according to a 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. The same poll found that about 82 percent of Republicans doubt that humans cause climate change. Among the climate deniers include some influential Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner.

Pope Francis also faces fierce opposition from U.S. evangelicals. According to the  Public Religion Research Institute, 69 percent of evangelicals do not believe in anthropogenic climate change, and many vehemently oppose its existence. Calvin Beisner, the spokesman for the conservative Cornwall Alliance, believes that the idea of human-caused climate change is “un-biblical.” “The pope should back off,” he said to The Guardian. “The Catholic church is correct on the ethical principles but has been misled on the science.”

Globally only 11 percent of people see the pope unfavorably, and 60 percent approve of him, according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center. Pope Francis is overwhelmingly accepted by heavily Catholic countries: 84 in percent Europe; 78 percent in the U.S., and 72 percent in Latin America. Now, with the pope’s environmental encyclical forthcoming, and his global support at astronomical levels, it’s still uncertain how much influence his environmental push will have with the most devout deniers of climate change.