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How Pope Francis's Climate Encyclical Is Disrupting American Politics

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By Carl Pope


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The Republican reaction to Pope Francis's climate encyclical, juxtaposed to the Democratic congressional rebellion against President Obama on trade, suggest that climate and energy are powerfully disrupting the grid-locked orthodoxy which has dominated American politics for the last decade.

The Tea Party-Koch brothers wing of conservatism, (and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party), are clearly on the defensive.

The most significant "tell" is the flailing responses of reactionaries to the looming threat posed to climate denial by Pope Francis's Laudato Si.

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Jeb Bush's latest flip-flop -- first asserting in New Hampshire that he wouldn't take his economics from his church, and then backpedaling in Iowa -- was merely the most recent spasm of right-wing discomfort.

Earlier Rick Santorum sputteringly strove to explain -- on Fox news -- why he was scolding the Pope, who has worked as a scientist, for speaking on climate, while Santorum himself, as a politician, had both right and duty to his own climate pulpit.

The assault began when the Heartland Institute tried to bully the Pope -- unsuccessfully -- into withholding or water down the encyclical by arguing that some of the voices urging climate action -- UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs -- opposed the Catholic Church on abortion. Indeed the overriding, major chord of the conservative assault on the encyclical is that Christian values only govern sex and family -- economics, geopolitics, and climate should be left to secular, capitalist ideology.

Pope Francis's allies within the Church understand what this means better than outsiders. Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, warned that Francis "will have many critics, because they want to continue setting rules of the game in which money takes first place. We have to be prepared for those kinds of attacks."

The Pope took his critics into account -- making it clear within the text of Laudato Si that his approach to the environment is firmly rooted in traditional Catholic views of the uniqueness of human life and the need for a non-market-based common good -- drawing a line clarifying that he is not preaching a "new age" form of Catholicism.

(Reactionaries' bewilderment that the Catholic Church's option for the poor extends to concerns about protecting the poor from greenhouse enhanced droughts, heat waves and rising oceans echoes their glib assumption that a presumed "social conservatism" would fence in American Hispanic voters, override their communitarian economic and environmental attitudes, and allow Republicans to retain Hispanic voter loyalty while still promising to "self-deport" 11 million of their relatives).

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It is more a gale than a fresh breeze when the most ground-breaking Pope since John XXIII links poverty and climate in a way which leaves the far-right sputtering -- (just as it was a powerful symbol when a daughter of the Church, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, broke with President Obama on trade, citing climate concerns).

Indeed, something fundamental is shifting this summer in political and cultural attitudes around climate.

Compare this year to the summer that preceded Copenhagen; the dominant 2009 news on climate was the grinding failure of the U.S. Senate and the Obama Administration on climate and energy legislation. And the rest of the news was equally dispiriting -- no progress, little ambition, cynicism about the prospects.

Six months out from Paris, a new dynamism is palpable. Hawaii just committed itself to 100 percent clean energy by 2045. The California Senate pledged the world's seventh largest economy to a 50 percent emission cut by 2030 -- including petroleum. The first quarter witnessed a stunning 76 percent growth in U.S. residential solar installations over the previous year. Georgia joined the growing list of states that permit homeowners to generate their own rooftop solar electrons, while giant (and historically conservative) Georgia Power proclaims that it will promote and grow clean power just as aggressively as it previously dominated coal and nuclear.

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