- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Pope Francis says climate change must be addressed because of its devastating impact on the poor and sick — but the pontiff is expected to stay far away from President Obama’s environmental agenda amid concerns it will carry financial burdens detrimental to the needy.

In his highly anticipated encyclical on climate change — a draft of which already has surfaced online after some news outlets defied the Vatican’s strict Thursday embargo — Francis will blame climate change on human activity and will call on governments around the globe to address the issue.

The document, which will represent the pope’s most significant foray into the political arena, already is under fire and has crept into the 2016 presidential race. Republican presidential contenders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both Catholics, have criticized Francis for wading into climate change and say the pontiff should not try to influence economic or energy policy.

But the encyclical likely will stay out of specific policy debates and instead will address climate change in broad strokes. Specialists say that’s because Francis cannot be seen advocating policies that could bring economic harm to the poor.

“The church can’t come out in favor of policies addressing climate change that produce economic hardships, specifically on the people being harmed by climate change,” said Joseph Prud'homme, a political science professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics and Culture at Washington College. “So there’s a built-in limitation to the extent the church can be supportive of policy objectives. That’s for the political realm to hammer out. The church, unlike a radical, secular environmentalist, has limits.”

The timing of the encyclical surely is no coincidence. Francis is keenly aware that this summer is the most opportune time to weigh in on the issue, with Mr. Obama and his counterparts around the world planning for a high-stakes United Nations climate change conference in Paris in December. The White House hopes to emerge from that meeting with an unprecedented global agreement to battle climate change built on commitments from individual countries to dramatically curb their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Ahead of that meeting, the administration has pledged to cut U.S. emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent over the next 15 years. Its chief vehicle to achieve those cuts is the so-called Clean Power Plan, which will implement dramatic new restrictions on carbon pollution from power plants.

Federal data say that plan, along with other pieces of Mr. Obama’s environmental agenda, will drive up electricity rates across the country, putting even more economic stress on those already struggling to get by.

Climate change activists predict the pontiff will play a leading role in the debate and his words will spur citizens — and perhaps entire governments — to take the issue more seriously.

“He’s definitely aiming to influence the political process and doing so by stressing the moral implications of this issue and the urgency of this issue,” said Tomas Insua, founding movement coordinator at the Global Catholic Climate Movement. “Pope Francis is a hugely influential voice . He’s really helping shape the debate in the media. Governments will be responsive when citizens ask for bolder action. I think that there’s a lot of potential. I’m really excited about how [the encyclical] has the potential to grow the movement and get more people out into the streets.”

The encyclical comes at a time when climate change is emerging as a key issue in the 2016 White House race and as conflicting data cast doubt on claims global warming is getting worse.

While Francis and others point to a mountain of scientific evidence they say proves climate change is both man-made and accelerating, other data raise questions. Recent studies from NASA, for example, have shown that the rise in earth’s surface air temperatures has slowed dramatically over the past 17 years.

Studies also show that deep ocean waters have not warmed measurably since 2005, and that the sea ice surrounding Antarctica now is at an all-time high.

Because of the ongoing dispute about climate change and its causes, some leading Republicans say Francis should avoid the issue entirely.

“The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science,” Mr. Santorum told Fox News earlier this month.

Mr. Bush told a New Hampshire crowd Tuesday that he won’t be heeding Francis’ advice on the issue.

“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, according to media reports. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment.”

Even before the encyclical emerged online, Democrats were firing back at Republicans in an effort to use the climate change issue to their political advantage.

“Ask many of these candidates about climate change, one of the defining threats of our time, and they’ll say, ‘I’m not a scientist,’” Hillary Rodham Clinton said at her first campaign rally last weekend. “Well, then, why don’t they start listening to those who are?”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Catholic and one of Mrs. Clinton’s rivals in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, also has made climate change a focal point of his campaign.

With the climate encyclical, specialists say Francis will be speaking directly to Catholics such as Mr. Bush, Mr. Santorum, Mr. O’Malley and others in making the case that the church has a responsibility to protect the environment.

“This is about the earth deserving our attention because it is created by God,” Mr. Prud'homme said.

The Vatican won’t release the final encyclical until Thursday, but some European media outlets published leaked copies late Monday. Vatican officials condemned the early release, calling it a “heinous act” and saying the final encyclical may be different.

According to the leaked version, Francis says the planet must act to avoid the “unprecedented damage” that will come from climate change.

“If the current trend continues this century, we could witness climate change unlike anything seen before and the unprecedented destruction of eco-systems, with serious consequences for all of us,” the pontiff says, according to excerpts published by Britain’s The Independent and other media outlets.

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