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Climate Deniers Say Nope to "Red Pope"

Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Climate change deniers never needed to know exactly what Pope Francis would say in his highly anticipated encyclical on the environment and climate change, which isn't released officially until Thursday. It was never about the content of Francis’ document, which were a mystery until a near-final, 192-page version leaked on Monday. They had prepped all along to discredit the Vatican's message using whatever means possible. 

While the leaked document surprised the Vatican and English-speaking reporters, who scrambled to translate the Italian version, conservatives have had their response ready for months. This could be why some, like Steve Milloy of the climate-denier website Junk Science, were so triumphant to catch the Vatican so off-guard:

The leaked version, titled “Laudato Si” or “Be Praised,” comes out strongly on the science and moral nature of climate change. “Numerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming of the past decades is due to the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others), emitted especially because of human activities,” it says, according to a translated version. “We are not god,” it says in another section, urging action to avoid grave consequences for the world’s poor.

For all the buildup to the encyclical’s release, the conservative backlash was hardly ever a mystery. We've had hints of it over the past few months, and now, in the days leading up to the official publication of the encyclical, it's clear conservatives intend to repackage their familiar arguments against climate change. Their response has fallen into two camps: The first camp insists that Pope Francis is wrong on the science, and is misguided to enter the debate as a religious figurehead. The second suggests he knows what he is doing, but the solutions to climate change—action that prioritizes adaptation and mitigation—hurt the same people Francis speaks for, the world’s poor.

“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,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said on Tuesday, his second day as an official presidential candidate. “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. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

This has been more or less the line from a number of other politicians. "I think the closer the Vatican sticks to issues focused on the church and religion, the more credible they are," Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan, a Catholic, told the Washington Examiner.

"The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we're really good at, which is theology and morality,” former GOP senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum said earlier in June.

And the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee Chair James Inhofe had the blunt message last week, “The pope ought to stay with his job.” 

Heritage Foundation’s Becky Norton Dunlop previewed this same argument last week, in an interview at Heartland Institute’s annual conference for climate change deniers. “It appears that he’s been briefed by a small, select group of people who have a unified opinion on this topic and therefore he hasn’t done what you must do in an honest exploration of views and that’s listen to lots of experts,” she said. “I daresay that no one who is at this conference was invited to participate in briefing the Pope on this issue.”

The Pope did consult with scientists for the encyclical. In fact, he has his own scientists, who operate out of the apparatus of the United Nations (whose independent body of scietnists always incite a conspiracy theory or two among conservatives). As Bloomberg’s Eric Rotson explains, it’s called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which has about 80 life-long members that hail from fields from astronomy, biochemistry, physics, and math. And his acknowledgement of fossil fuels’ role in climate change reflects not just his scientific body’s consensus, but the consensus of experts worldwide, save for the small number who gather at Heartland’s conferences.

The second argument, that climate action would only hurt the poor, is popular among another set of climate-denier politicians.

"I don't know what the encyclical is going to say, but basically if it advocates a Kyoto-type approach to climate change, I think a lot of needy humans are going to be put out of work," Senator of Mississippi Roger Wicker told the National Journal. "It concerns me when someone who has a lot of credibility and goodwill takes a position that I think may end up harming people.” "I hope it's not going to be as bad as I think,” House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, said, according to the Washington Examiner. “I think on the whole that much of the effort to reduce global warming actually hurts the poor.”

Conservatives were quick to point out this argument long before the leak on Monday. Heartland Institute sent its experts to the Vatican in late April, to argue how fossil fuels benefit the economy. Last week, on Thursday, Competitive Enterprise Institute's director of energy and climate policy Myron Ebell, argued a similar point that, “if he thinks that this is a simple issue of somehow saving people from climate change he is sadly misinformed, because the great moral issue is energy ration policies are foisted on people such that poor people from poor countries are condemned to perpetual poverty. That is immoral and I think that the climate change agenda is fundamentally immoral and if he doesn’t understand that then he hasn’t thought very clearly on the issues.”

It’s as if everyone were reading from the same talking points. And they probably are.

Arch Coal sent an email blast to GOP lawmakers on Tuesday morning, which was obtained by Greenpeace. The email subject line says, “ Unfortunately, the Pope's Encyclical, to be officially released on 6.18. does not appear to address the tragedy of global energy poverty.” In talking points that outline coal’s role in the economy, the memo says, “Billions of people around the globe are living without electrification and suffering though untold poverty and disease as a result” and “Coal is the only feedstock for base-load electricity capable of providing the energy emerging economies and struggling communities need to rise up out of abject poverty and towards a newfound hope.”

They will need better arguments, however, because this is exactly the point that Pope Francis's encyclical is expected to push back on. Far from ensuring prosperity for the poor, fossil fuels guarantee a world where they suffer even more, from the effects of sea level rise, extreme weather, and warming. Francis will ask rich countries' to finally put selfish and special interests aside to change course.