Is Global Warming Real? Is the Pope Catholic?

The Idaho impact of Pope Francis' climate change encyclical


When Jack McMahon, a parishioner at Risen Christ Catholic Church and Concordia Law School professor, began combing through Pope Francis' 180-page climate change encyclical, Laudato Si (Care for our Common Home), he made a quick connection to the Gem State—particularly Idaho Power's dependency on coal-powered energy plants.

"Idaho is now swarming with renewable energy projects," McMahon said. "Idaho Power chose the other path... they have locked themselves into using fossil fuels for the next 20 years."

The overuse of fossil fuels is just one of several environmental issues addressed by the pope's encyclical, issued June 18, which has inspired debate in every corner of the globe, including Idaho.

Some critics insist that climate change and energy policy are strictly political discussions in which religion has no place. Jim Lakely, spokesman for the Chicago-based Heartland Institute think tank, wrote: "Pope Francis' heart is in the right place; but he made a grave mistake by putting his trust and moral authority behind agenda-driven bureaucrats at the United Nations who have been bearing false witness about the causes and consequences of climate change for decades."

McMahon said the pope is already in the thick of that debate.

"A lot of people are taking umbrage against the idea of the church getting involved in the environment," he said. "The pope is saying that these [decisions on the environment] are both political decisions and moral decisions."

The climate change debate is hardly the first time that the Catholic Church has been embroiled in environmental politics, particularly in the Northwest. In February 2001, Catholic bishops from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia wrote a pastoral letter dubbed "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good," which called for judicial protections of the Columbia River and its wildlife.

"The Columbia River, made by God and populated with His creatures of every sort, is holy," the bishops wrote. "Polluting it, and treating it as a sewer and stealing from it without regard to all the creatures, human and otherwise, who depend upon it for sustenance is a grave offense to God."

In June, 16 religious leaders from the Northwest and Canada fired off their own letter, this time directed to President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"When we seek to make faithful decisions about the tending of the Columbia River or any natural resource, we must remember that it is not, nor can it ever be, just about us or just about now," they wrote.

McMahon said Pope Francis has made it clear "that religion is not just a relationship between a person and God," but added that he feared some Idahoans might have a harder time recognizing climate change as a significant problem.

"It's the oceans that are going to be rising, not the Boise River," he said.

Nonetheless, the pope's encyclical may spur some cognitive dissonance among a few high-ranking Gem State officials.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is Catholic; so is U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, one of 163 members of Congress who are Catholic. Otter has opposed measures meant to limit carbon emissions, calling carbon's connection to climate change "debatable," while Risch in January voted against an amendment that stated "climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change."

"[Catholic politicians] are reading a document directed at them—first as Catholics and then as politicians," said McMahon. "This really can't be ignored by political figures. It has to be addressed."

The task of raising awareness of climate change in Idaho remains the job of Gem State environmental organizations. The Snake River Alliance has already scheduled several events using the pope's encyclical as a foundation. Many of those events run up until Saturday, Oct. 24, the International Day of Climate Action, when nearly 100 nations around the world will participate in demonstrations advocating for policies aimed at lessening climate threats.

Between now and then Pope Francis will have visited the United States, where he is expected to address the United Nations General Assembly and a joint session of Congress. Climate change is reported to be the centerpiece of his remarks.

While McMahon recognizes that there is still much work to be done to reverse or even slow human-caused climate change, he's still optimistic that the message of Pope Francis' encyclical will sink in.

"I believe there will be a tipping point when humanity wakes up and takes actions against climate change," McMahon said. "Inexcusable delay will make the task vastly more expensive than if tackled now, but the day will come when Americans will demand action."

Meanwhile, officials at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise have expressed growing interest in the pope's stance on climate change. An editorial in the June 19 edition of the Idaho Catholic Register, titled "Pope Francis sees the forest for the trees," states that the pope is not trying to "convince the inconvincible" that climate change exists, but instead demonstrate why humanity should be concerned.

The editorial notes that the encyclical "is likely to make Catholics carrying political party cards of every stripe uncomfortable," but reminds Idahoans that "inequality is played out even in Idaho, where the electrical grid will be overwhelmed in the weeks ahead as the demand for power for air conditioning will result in unexpected shutdowns as demand increases with rising temperatures. Who pays the steepest price? The poor, shut-ins and seniors who have no way to avoid or escape the heat."

"We wanted to provoke thought in our readers," said Michael Brown, head of communications for the Boise Diocese and Register editor. "I think [the encyclical] will have a huge impact over generations not in just the world economy, but the domestic economy. It really comes down to protection of the poor."