Representatives of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, perhaps the best-known and best-funded organization dedicated to denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change, were in Rome recently, respectfully calling on the Holy Father. Their stated goal for the visit—in their own words, including exclamatory punctuation—has been “to inform Pope Francis of the truth about climate science: There is no global-warming crisis!”
The timing of their trip, like that desperate-seeming exclamation point, is telling. At some point over the next two to three months, Pope Francis will be issuing a clerically significant form of papal missive known as an encyclical. For those whose Sunday-school transcripts weren’t good enough to get them into the College of Cardinals, an encyclical is a letter sent by the pope to Catholic bishops instructing them to take immediate action on a matter of church doctrine. Less formally, it can be thought of as a personal message from the pope to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, urging them to focus their spiritual energies on something the Church deems important.
That’s why so many people have been buzzing about what’s coming. As only the second encyclical to be signed by the new pope since he took office in 2013—and the first that he has authored independently—this encyclical would be newsworthy no matter what it was about. But what makes it doubly so is its subject: climate change, and especially its devastating impact on global ecosystems. With more than a billion Catholics (and quite a few non-Catholics) hanging on his every word, Pope Francis will passionately make the humanitarian and spiritual case for acting on climate change—through, among other things, the conservation of resources, the pursuit of renewable energy, and the reduction of greenhouse gases.
Pope Francis will be marrying the humanitarian impulse to the Biblical imperative of “creation care,” which holds that humans bear a special responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth they have been given.
From a climate activist’s perspective, there can be little doubt that this encyclical will resonate. For one thing, you couldn’t ask for a more effective messenger to deliver this message. At the moment, Pope Francis is enjoying something like super-pope status, his every utterance making headlines and sparking conversation among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And by rhetorically tying climate action to the Christian mandate to aid the afflicted and give comfort to the needy, he’ll be doing much more than merely acknowledging the severity of the problem. By virtue of his moral authority, the pope has the singular ability to mobilize people all over the globe to take whatever form of action they can. No other figure of our time can claim that degree of influence.
But there’s another reason to be excited about this encyclical—one that has more to do with mass psychology than mass mobilization. As the pope will surely stress, his understanding of Christian ethics compels him to see climate change as a profoundly moral issue. Reinforcing the moral argument will be a theological one. Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Vatican official who has been helping the pope with early drafts, has made clear that Francis will be marrying the humanitarian impulse to the Biblical imperative of “creation care,” which holds that humans bear a special responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth they have been given. As Turkson puts it: “To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty.”
In the days and weeks surrounding the encyclical, religious people of all faiths will be asking themselves whether they find these arguments persuasive. Happily, in America this question has already been asked and answered by a number of major religious organizations and evangelical groups that are on record as both accepting the science of climate change and supporting action at the public-policy level. Nevertheless, many Americans who self-identify as religious and social conservatives, especially those in the subset of white evangelical Protestants (a powerful voting bloc in Republican politics), continue to cling stubbornly to the orthodoxy of climate denial. In a poll released last November by the Public Religion Research Institute, fewer than half of them were willing to link extreme weather events to climate change, whereas more than three-quarters thought these events were signs of the “end times” predicted in the Bible.
Emory University political scientists Steven Webster and Alan Abramowitz believe they have identified a powerful cultural reflex that could help us to better understand the odd correlation between social conservatism and climate denial. According to Webster and Abramowitz’s forthcoming study, one of the strongest predictors of how an individual will vote in an election is a phenomenon they call “negative partisanship.” Negative partisanship represents the triumph of antagonism over affiliation, contempt over community. As the political journalist Ezra Klein has noted, it’s why you’re “more likely to vote Democratic if you hate Republicans than if you love Democrats, and vice versa.”
For many people on the cultural right, climate change has always felt like something that their perceived opposites on the ideological spectrum—liberal progressives and secular humanists, namely—have believed in and fought against. If Webster and Abramowitz are right, that may have been enough to make large numbers of religious conservatives recoil from the science on climate change and reject any messages about the need to reverse it. When your cultural identity depends on there being no overlap in the “Us vs. Them” Venn diagram you’ve drawn in your mind, you’re reluctant to acknowledge even a sliver of commonality.
But this summer’s encyclical has the potential to shatter the illusion of an insuperable divide between conservative cultural values and belief in climate change. And that’s why those representatives from the Heartland Institute have been meeting with Vatican officials, quixotically trying to persuade them that Pope Francis has been terribly misinformed—even though he’s already witnessed, personally, the horrible human toll that climate change can take.
The ambassadors of denial are nervous that the tone of our cultural conversation is about to shift. Their worst fear is that Francis might successfully disabuse religious conservatives of a longstanding and pernicious myth: that climate change should be thought of as a splinter issue, and that belief in climate science and support for environmental action signify membership in the “enemy camp.” So long as climate deniers can maintain the charade of Us vs. Them, their well-funded dissembling machine keeps on rolling. But if the Pope actually manages to bring people together—and so far his track record on that front is pretty good—the whole thing could fall apart.