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Climate Pleas From Pope, Obama Fall Flat in Texas

Pope Francis has called on people of faith and science to come together and address the perils of climate change, and President Obama has finalized his ambitious carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan. But Texas Republicans aren't signing on, Catholic or not.

Deacon Sam Dunning of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

HOUSTON — Weeks after Pope Francis sparked an uproar by calling for decisive action to combat human-driven climate change, an official with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston urged a roomful of mostly white, affluent environmentalists here to forge partnerships with the people who live in communities directly affected by the warming trend — an indirect reference to the underprivileged. 

"It's time consuming, but it's about building relationships and those are folks who have the stories to tell about the ways in which they're adversely impacted by the corruption of our environment," Deacon Sam Dunning said Wednesday evening at a panel organized by Environment Texas to "discuss, celebrate and applaud" President Obama’s controversial and unprecedented plan to combat global warming — and the pope's recent treatise.

"Whether it's from greed or ignorance or indifference or neglect," Dunning continued, "it doesn't matter in the eyes of God — it's a sin."

Announced Monday, the final version of the president's Clean Power Plan calls for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels over the next 15 years, a goal that targets coal-fueled power plants as the largest emitters of carbon pollution. 

Obama's climate change push comes shortly after the new pope made waves in June by recognizing the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans cause global warming. He called on people of faith and science to forge a new alliance to curb the phenomenon.

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” Francis wrote in his first and much-anticipated papal encyclical.

“Regrettably,” he continued, “many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest.”

Nowhere is that opposition more powerful than in the Republican Party, with GOP officials across the nation, and in Texas, preparing to sue over Obama’s clean air plan — a program they denounce as an overreaching “executive order” being shoved down states’ throats.

Republican politicians in Texas — including Gov. Greg Abbott, who converted to Catholicism after a freak accident left him paralyzed — regularly challenge the idea that human activity is the primary cause of global warming, or flatly deny the warming trend is even occurring. 

Abbott's press office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But experts say the Roman Catholic Church’s newfound involvement in the climate change discussion isn’t likely to alter the political debate anytime soon. Catholic politicians – Democratic and Republican – have a history of selectively choosing which papal positions to trumpet and which to ignore.

Indeed, the pope’s message has largely rung hollow in Texas — the top carbon polluter in the country — and other red states, even among Catholics. 

“I’m not aware of Republican politicians in the country — let alone Texas — that have said, ‘Well, shit, I never thought of that. The pope thinks climate change is important so it must be,’” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

Thanks to Democrats, Catholicism is the predominant religion in the Texas Legislature, counting more than one-third of state lawmakers, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of Capitol demographics.

Democrats accounted for 40 of the 60 reported practicing Catholics in the 84th Legislature, but some of Legislature's staunchest conservatives also practice the religion, including state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a conservative Republican from Houston, who said he agrees with what he sees as the main takeaway from the pope’s premiere encyclical: Be a good steward of the world and the environment.

But, he said, “good stewards come by getting good facts” and “the facts are that we’re going to continue to have global warming, global cooling over time for a variety of reasons.”

“There’s more to this than just greenhouse gas,” he said, contending that the “primary driver for global warming is the sun.”

Catholic state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, was more critical, describing the encyclical as an overreach: “I think this is a pope that often expresses opinion on matters of politics and science, which is outside of papal infallibility and church doctrine. And good Catholics can fall down on either side and are free to disagree.”

Catholics did not keep their discontent over the encyclical to themselves, Dunning said during Wednesday's panel, which included the head of a renewable energy company and an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center who specializes in pediatric asthma.

The encyclical "has, of course, invited praise and invective," Dunning said, recalling one parishioner who told him, "The pope needs to spend more time saving souls rather than savings trees and the Amazon."

That animosity is not limited to the issue of climate change, the deacon said in an interview after the panel, citing things like immigration. 

"There is a lot of antipathy to the teachings of the Catholic Church even among Catholics," he said.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler, who often criticizes his colleagues for shamelessly pandering to their bases, was the only Catholic Republican interviewed by the Tribune who offered clear praise for the pope.

“I think he’s a breath of fresh air, and I welcome his opinions on world issues,” said Eltife, who recently announced his retirement from the Senate. “I think there’s a lot of merit to what he says about climate change, and I, for one, think all you have to do is look at what we’ve done with the environment over the years.”

Francis’ encyclical is unlikely to move skeptical Republican politicians, but the church’s advocacy on the progressive side of the spectrum could force a shift in the conversation, said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones.

“It’s not going to dramatically change the opinions of lawmakers, but certainly it does put a little more pressure on the skeptics, particularly those who on other issues are in alignment with the church” such as abortion and gay marriage, he said.

But there's no political gain for most Republicans in Texas – based on who votes in GOP primaries – to acknowledge climate change as real or human-caused even if they do believe it, Jones said.

The tricky politics facing the GOP surfaced last year when George P. Bush, a Catholic and then a candidate for Texas land commissioner, backpedaled after telling the Tribune in an interview that "people can agree that there has been warming in recent years," though he wasn't sure whether it was man-made.  

Bush later sought to "clarify" the remark by saying "there's been warming, and there's been freezing." Now land commissioner, he did not respond to questions for this story.  

The church’s increasing involvement in the climate change debate could potentially lead to political friction if “moderate Republican Catholics split from their party to take a less extreme stand in favor of environmental regulations designed to limit emissions,” or if various Christian denominations take different positions on the issue, said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.

That happened when the Texas Catholic Conference and Texas Right to Life – typically allies – had a difference of opinion over end-of-life issues, he noted.

The GOP’s conundrum with climate change is similar to the one Catholic Democrats face with abortion rights and gay marriage, which they often support even though the church opposes them, Rottinghaus said. (Francis has taken a more nuanced view on gay marriage than abortion.)

The encyclical likely will inspire more climate change-specific legislative goals for the Texas Catholic Conference, which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of Texas bishops, said Executive Director Jeffery Patterson.

But he said the pope’s call was simply “a reinforcement of principles the church has long believed in advocating for.”

“That doesn’t meant that it doesn’t raise the attention and profile of the issue among American Catholics — it does,” he said. “I think it’s just a reminder to all Catholics — and everyone, really — about the attention we should give to preserving God’s creation and taking care of the environment as much as we possibly can.”

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Rice University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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