Senators Square Off Over Pope's Role in Highlighting Global Climate Challenge

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By Dean Scott and Anthony Adragna

June 16—Republican and Democratic senators June 16 sparred over whether Pope Francis's call for world action to address climate change will fundamentally alter the debate over whether humans play an outsized role in raising global temperatures.

The pontiff's much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, a draft of which was leaked by an Italian publication June 15, highlighted the links between human activities and a warming planet.

But the 192-page papal encyclical, which is the most extensive review yet of the climate issue by any pope, also called for nations to stop putting their individual interests above what he termed the “global common good”.

Republicans generally declined to criticize the decision by Pope Francis to enter the climate debate. But several said they remain unconvinced that humans are the cause of global warming.

Senate Democrats, including two in leadership positions, were far more welcoming of the pope's message, which is to be formally released June 18.

“My hope is the pope will inspire, literally inspire, leaders in this country to once again view this as a bipartisan challenge,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Bloomberg BNA. “I think his stature in the world gives him enormous credibility on this issue.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Bloomberg BNA, “Anything the Holy Father can do to move the issue, particularly as he has said, [one that] is governed by religious precepts, is a good thing.”

Vice President Joe Biden also weighed in at a June 16 clean energy event at the White House, saying encyclicals are “only issued on what the church thinks are incredibly important initiatives."

Biden added that “there's a consensus growing” in support of global action.

Inhofe Questions Papal Role 

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, echoed comments from other Republicans in recent weeks, including presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who said the pope had the right to speak on the issue but also should “leave science to the scientists.”

“I don't agree with the pope,” Inhofe told Bloomberg BNA. “He has the right to say anything he wants, but that doesn't change the lack of science” backing up the pontiff's views, Inhofe said.

The senator also questioned whether the majority of Catholics would support the pope's broader message calling for international action at an end-of-year Paris summit, where nearly 200 nations hope to finalize a global climate accord.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told Bloomberg BNA that the pope's views are unlikely to sway all Catholics to support climate action. “I'm a Methodist, and I've observed the Methodist bishops aren't always correct on issues either,” he said.

Call for Stewardship Said ‘Appropriate.’

But the pope's call for action was welcomed by at least one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine). “I have a different view from those who think it is inappropriate for the pope to be speaking out on this issue,” Collins told Bloomberg BNA.

“How influential it will be I think is impossible to assess at this point—but it may cause some rank and file Catholics to focus on the issue for the first time, simply because the pope has highlighted its importance,” she said.

The pope's climate views are expected to be on full display in September when he will travel to the U.S. and address a joint session of Congress—the first time a sitting pope will have addressed the U.S. legislative body— and the UN General Assembly.

Advocates of climate action argue that the pope could provide what they see as a significant moral influence on the Paris international climate negotiations.

Reluctant to Weigh in 

But several Republicans declined to comment on whether a religious leader should weigh in so strongly on a politically divisive issue.

“I think I'll keep my opinion to politics, not religion,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Anybody can weigh in on anything,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told reporters. “We'll see what he puts out,” she said, adding that “it's always important to get as many” views as possible on contentious issues.

“I can't tell the pope what or what not to address,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters, adding that regulating greenhouse gas emissions will only increase the cost of fossil fuels, which would hurt the poor. Such regulations will only “kill off jobs for those who are less well-off,” he said.

But Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), lauded Pope Francis for focusing on the issue and urged him to go further, by convening a global summit of religious leaders on how climate change has already affected the planet and “the people who live on it.”

“Climate change is a reality whether people want to deny it or not,” she said. “The pope will be focusing attention not only on the science but also the consequences of our failure to do nothing.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott and Anthony Adragna in Washington at and

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

The draft text of the encyclical (in Italian) is available at