Activists Hope Pope Can Change Climate Conversation In Washington

The moral argument for climate action might finally get its due.

WASHINGTON -- Climate activists are hopeful that Pope Francis will be able to bring a message to policymakers this week that has so far not permeated the nation's capital: that climate change is as much a moral consideration as it is a scientific, economic and political challenge.

The moral impetus for action is at the center of the pontiff's "Laudato Si," the encyclical on the environment he released in June imploring Catholics take on a "renewed sensitivity to the rights of others" and a "greater concern for nature and the poor."

The pope concludes the encyclical with two prayers, the first asking "that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction."

Lawmakers have heard -- and remained impervious to -- repeated messages on the overwhelming science demonstrating the human influence on climate change and the economic consequences of failing to do anything about it. But the pope is expected to bring a message sorely needed in D.C. when he address Congress on Thursday, putting climate into a social justice context.

"The biggest thing he adds politically is he makes this a bread-and-butter issue," Christopher Hale, executive director ​of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told The Huffington Post. "A lot of times environmental issues are seen as elitist. He's saying this is not an elitist issue. He's saying this is an issue that affects human lives and the poor."

"Saying climate change has a disproportionate effect on the poor is a message that has not gotten out widely, and secular environmental groups have not done a good job getting out this message," he continued. "I think what he adds to this equation is a particular and poignant message that resonates with everyday Americans. … It does not come off as nearly as elitist."

There's already some evidence that the pope's message is getting through to Congress. Last week, a group of 11 House members, led by Catholic Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), signed on to a resolution pledging to work "constructively" on solutions to climate change. The resolution notes that "if left unaddressed, the consequences of a changing climate have the potential to adversely impact all Americans, hitting vulnerable populations hardest."

While the number of Republicans who have signed on to the House effort is small, there's hope that the pope's message will prompt other legislators to at least stand down on their efforts to thwart U.S. participation in the global climate agreement or the nation's work to help poor countries deal with climate change.

"There's nobody better to deliver the moral argument than the pope," said Karen Orenstein, senior international policy analyst at Friends of the Earth. "That will be un-ignorable. Congress will have to hear it."

Christina Leano, the global campaigns coordinator of Global Catholic Climate Movement, said the release of the encyclical this year, as leaders prepare for climate talks in Paris, is not a coincidence.

"I think we have a very smart pope that knows timing is important," said Leano, whose group recently launched Pray for COP21, a three-month-long prayer chain organized online to coordinate prayer among Catholics worldwide for a good outcome at the December climate discussions. "He's creating the space in the public sphere to really shape the dialogue on climate change being not just about science, but about morality, about faith."

Hale also thinks the pope's visit will shift the tone among Republican presidential candidates, giving them "space to act more prudently."

"Whether or not politicians agree with Pope Francis, they're no longer in a space where they can ignore him," he said. There's already been some shifting in rhetoric from the candidates, with formerly skeptical Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) signaling that he would not challenge the pope on climate. The pope, "as a moral authority is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers of the planet," Rubio said. Fellow Catholic Jeb Bush said he doesn't take economic policy advice from the pope, but would consider what the pope has to say "as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues."

While the moral argument for climate action might be new to many in the U.S., a religious movement for climate action has been underway in the nation for years. The movement includes groups like Interfaith Power & Light, which was founded 15 years ago to help churches and other religious institutions become "faithful stewards of Creation." So far, they have engaged 18,000 congregations in 40 states. "Our message is so similar to what the pope is saying," said Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest and the group's founder. But the difference, she said, is "we're not popes -- we don't have the influence."

There are still a lot of people, including many of the 76.7 million Catholics in the U.S., for whom the pope's message is novel. A poll following the delivery of the pope's encyclical found that fewer than half of American Catholics knew about it. But his visit to the U.S., which includes stops in three cities and widespread media coverage, is expected to change that.

"I think the pope's message will push it further down the road, and much more quickly than we would have done without him," she said. "I think he's calling not just Americans and not just Roman Catholics to a conversion in the way we think, the way we live in the world -- that we have to stop thinking about ourselves alone and start thinking about other people."