Pope and Miami prelate spark a debate over climate change

In what might be a first in recent memory, some Florida Republicans and Democrats actually agree on something.

For Catholics, all it took was the voice of God.

In June, Pope Francis issued what’s known as an encyclical, a papal letter sent to Catholic bishops worldwide stating that climate change is a crucial concern that needs to be addressed and mitigated.

“There is today broad consensus among scientists that climate change presents real threat to human flourishing on this planet. The church cannot be indifferent,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a prepared statement on the archdiocese website.

Wenski pledged to start an aggressive campaign to promote climate change with speeches, sermons and other events.

Pope Francis's Encyclical from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

“We need to talk about this because this is affecting people,” said Nelson Araque, an ambassador at the Catholic Climate Covenant, the church’s climate change outreach group.

“Who is suffering the most? The poor people,” said Araque, a theology instructor at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale.

The encyclical focuses on the detrimental effects of climate change and urges people of all faiths to take responsibility for caring for the Earth. Francis based his assertions on a moral obligation to help the world’s poor, who are most affected by climate change.

Florida politicians say the topic will be important in the upcoming presidential election.

“I don’t know how big climate change is going to be, but it’s definitely going to play a role,” said Raul Martinez, former Democratic mayor of Hialeah. “People are interested in jobs, economy, foreign policy and the issue of race in the United States. But I’m sure that there’s going to be a lot of discussions with the issue of climate change.”

The president of the Miami Young Republicans Club agrees.

“I think any candidate that’s going to be positioning himself to win the presidency needs to be aware that there are things happening with the environment,” said club leader Jessica Fernandez.

“And instead of us trying to specifically say, ‘Company X or Jessica Fernandez is using this much energy and are causing this much pollution,’ we have to figure out how to be innovative and have better technology and be more efficient.”

The pope’s message has gained momentum in Florida thanks in part to Wenski, who started a yearlong trek to generate climate change awareness.

In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel in June, the archbishop referenced the book of Genesis to stress the impact people have on nature.

“The Lord has entrusted us the Earth,” Wenski said. “And he expects us to be good stewards.”

Lesley Northup, honors dean and associate professor of religious studies at Florida International University, said Wenski’s tour probably would not advance an environmental discussion in any meaningful way.

“He’s not likely to come out, for both political reasons and his own intellectual reasons, with any stunning remarks about climate change,” Northup said.

The archbishop is largely acting out of professional responsibility, not moral conviction, Northup said.

“The archbishop is a political animal,” she said. “In my opinion, he’s not a very strong thinker.”

Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, said that religion often has an important impact on politics.

“If you look at both the Democrats and Republicans, they always quote the Hebrew and Christian scriptures,” she said. “They often do this in their speeches in very public ways. This becomes a way of appealing to voters that are religious.”

But while 2016 Florida Republican presidential candidates—and Roman Catholics—Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio might acknowledge climate change to some degree, Maldonado said they’re still out of touch with the pope’s message.

She said Republicans’ reactions to the pope’s upcoming Washington, D.C. address to Congress in September will be interesting.

“I suspect he’s going to have a very strong message for our political leaders, and I think that particularly Catholic Republicans are going to be squirming a little bit and trying to figure out how to handle that,” Maldonado said.

Northup added that most Catholics won’t appreciate a politician telling the pope to mind his own business.

“This is the pope’s business,” she said. “It’s the business of anybody who cares about other human beings. If anybody’s supposed to embody that, it’s the pope.”

In the end, more supporters mean more campaign dollars and Northup said politicians usually aren’t willing to risk either.

“We’ll see whether the campaign dollars are enough to overcome invincible ignorance.”

The pope, a former chemist, also lays blame on climate change deniers.

“Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems,” he said in his encyclical.

In any event, Martinez said the topic shouldn’t be reduced to petty politics.

“It should not be a party issue,” he said. “It should not be Democrat, Republican or Independent issue. It should be a people’s issue.”