Can Pope Francis Save the Planet?

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Pope Francis adjusts his glasses in front of his chair, which has an image of the Shroud of Turin woven into the red fabric, as he leads a mass during a two-day pastoral visit in Turin, Italy, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino

You might be forgiven for thinking Pope Francis is a Marxist. Take, for instance, this passage from Laudato Si, the second encyclical—or missive to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church—of Francis's career, which the Vatican released Thursday:mi

The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth….Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.

Compare that to, say, this passage from Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s 2010 book Living in the End Times:

The December 2009 Copenhagen talks between the top representatives of 20 great powers about how to fight global warming failed miserably—the result was a vague compromise without any fixed deadlines or obligations, more a statement of intentions than a treaty. The lesson is bitter and clear: the state political elites serve capital, they are unable and/or unwilling to control and regulate capital even when the very survival of the human race is ultimately at stake….when our natural commons are threatened, neither market nor state will save us, but only a properly communist mobilization. All one has to do here is to compare the reaction to the financial meltdown of September 2008 with the Copenhagen conference of 2009: save the planet from global warming...can wait a little bit, but the call "Save the banks!" is an unconditional imperative which demands and receives immediate action.

The Slovenian's style is more bombastic than the Argentine’s, but the two are making the same basic argument: Political elites' seemingly pathologic drive to line their own pockets is destroying the environment.

It is not surprising, then, that some political elites reacted badly to Laudato Si. Former Florida governor, current Republican presidential candidate and Catholic convert Jeb Bush rejected the encyclical out of hand: "I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," he said at a New Hampshire campaign event.

Rick Santorum, who ran for the presidency and lost in 2012 and some think might give it another go in 2016, told a Philadelphia radio station earlier this month that "we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality."

Francis is clever, though: By making the case that addressing climate change is a moral issue, and not just a political or economic one, the Pontiff has framed the debate in a way that allows him to leverage his moral authority, says Kenneth Richards, professor of environmental economics and policy at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "This notion that 'I don't take political advice or science advice from the pope' simply ignores the fact that this isn't a political or scientific issue, purely, that it's a moral one."

"I think people who have made up their minds for purely political reasons are simply going to dismiss this, as [Oklahoma Senator James] Inhofe and Santorum have done," says Richards. "Honestly, I'm a little surprised that Jeb Bush just shook it off, because I've always thought he was a more serious thinker."

In terms of moral authority, Francis far outstrips Bush or Santorum, or any American politician, for that matter. "Pope Francis is enormously popular and his moral authority is pretty much unquestioned," says Dan Misleh, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, a Washington, D.C.-based interest group that seeks to shape public opinion on climate change. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in March 2013 found 90 percent of the U.S.'s Catholics had a favorable opinion of Francis. According to another Pew Poll from May, about one in five Americans identifies as Catholic. That's around 59 million American Catholics who love Francis. Compare that to Jeb Bush's favorability rating: 31.7 percent, according to an aggregate poll by The Huffington Post. Rick Santorum is even lower: 30.9 percent. Democrats fare little better: Hillary Clinton only has a 49.6 percent favorability rating right now. None of them comes close to Francis.

"There's always going to be some voices, left and right, that disagree with the pope and will do so very publicly," says Misleh, "but I think generally Catholics will be very, very supportive."

But if Francis wants to have a palpable impact on global climate change, his flock will need to include more than just American Catholics. "By emphasizing the connection between environmental stewardship and concern for the poor and disadvantaged members of society, the encyclical is strengthening the potential for interest groups and politicians to create new and stronger coalitions" outside the U.S., says Richards. In Australia, for instance, half the Cabinet is Catholic. In Indonesia, where environmentalists clash with human rights activists over the morality of harvesting huge amounts of oil palms—an activity with massive economic benefits for the poor but with disastrous environmental impacts—Francis could forge meaningful coalitions among groups that aren't always on the same page. "Essentially, the pope’s encyclical argues that these two groups should work in the same direction: People who are concerned for the environment also need to be concerned for the poor and vica versa. By turning it into a religious issue he's strengthening the hands of both groups," adds Richards.

"[There are] 1.1 billion Catholics in the world and actually the majority of those are in South America and Africa," Richards says. "I think potentially he could have more impact in those countries [on the issue of climate change] than he might have in places like the U.S. that are so thoroughly entrenched in the politics of the issue."

Francis has a good track record when it comes to influencing policy outcomes. Take, for example, the warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. "Everybody was talking about it. Everybody knew it should be done. Nobody was willing to do it because of the political consequences. Then the Vatican and Pope Francis got involved and it provided some cover, some encouragement, some challenge and now it's getting done."

Francis isn’t the first Pope to attempt to influence policy on a large scale: Pope John Paul II's vocal opposition to Communism is widely credited with helping defeat Communism in Poland and helping the West win the Cold War.

Not everyone thinks the encyclical will be enough to sway public opinion. Among them is Mark Gray, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate Catholic Polls. "If [the encyclical] changes attitudes among the population, that certainly could percolate up to the politics of the 2016 campaign. But the reality is, if you look historically, encyclicals or major documents released by the church haven't really impacted public opinion in the U.S. much at all."

Still, many think Francis might really change the nature of the discussion. "Politics as usual, business as usual, environmentalism as usual isn't going to get us anywhere. There is a stalemate," says Carr. "The only way to break the stalemate is to offer people an opportunity to think about this in a different way and that's what the pope is offering. The fact that his approval numbers are double or triple [Bush's or Santorum's] may open their minds, if not their hearts."

Correction: This article originally incorrectly misquoted Kenneth Richards. He said there are 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, not 1.1 million. Transcription error: regretted.