VATICAN CITY — California has opened a new front in its war on Donald Trump — the Vatican, where Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday sought to enlist the Catholic Church in his effort to undermine the president’s climate policies abroad.
Brown, addressing a somber gathering of scientists, politicians and religious leaders here, rebuked Trump’s rejection of mainstream climate science as a “lie within a lie,” urging religious establishments to help “awaken the world” to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The conspicuous repudiation of the president, in this center of Christendom on the eve of this week’s international climate talks in Bonn, Germany, served to underscore Brown’s role as one of the most prominent figures in the anti-Trump resistance. But it also highlighted California’s deep antipathy toward the president on a global stage, allying the nation’s most populous state with the international community against the backdrop of simmering tension between the White House and Pope Francis on climate change.
The pope, who did not appear at the conference, implicitly criticized the president in October for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, a decision that weighed heavily over the gathering.
Brown wasn’t the only Californian emphasizing the American divide over global warming — or the state’s determination to blaze its own trail on the issue. Rallying the same audience the previous day, California Democratic state Senate leader Kevin de León cast California’s leaders — and not, explicitly, Washington’s — as the “faithful stewards of God’s creation.”
Daniel Kammen, the University of California, Berkeley, professor who resigned noisily from his role as science envoy to the State Department in August, called Trump’s election America’s “existential crisis” and encouraged efforts to impeach him. And California Democratic Congressman Scott Peters said the relatively large proportion of U.S. Congress members who are Catholic is “one reason why Pope Francis’ commitment to making environmental stewardship a priority of his papacy has such a potential to affect American climate policy.”
The meeting, hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, preceded two weeks of climate talks in Bonn, where Brown and leaders of other Democratic states will seek to persuade the world’s nations that wide swaths of the United States remain committed to the Paris agreement. Trump’s withdrawal from the pact has cast a cloud over the upcoming gathering in Germany.
Still, California’s Democratic governor minimized the significance of Trump’s withdrawal from the accord, saying the decision helped focus public attention on the issue.
In comparison to worldwide efforts to address climate change, Brown said, “The Trump factor is very small, very small indeed.”
Instead, Brown called for a fundamental transformation of people’s way of life.
“It’s not just a light rinse,” Brown said. “We need a total, I might say brainwashing. We need to wash our brains out and see a very different kind of world.”
Yet the Catholic Church’s ability to move American public opinion on climate change remains in doubt. For one thing, relations between Trump and the spiritual leader of America’s more than 50 million Catholics remain cool after Pope Francis criticized Trump on issues ranging from climate change to immigration to refugee resettlement.
“The state of relations between the pope and Trump is not good and has never been good,” longtime Vatican analyst Iacopo Scaramuzzi said in an email. “They are openly at odds on almost every point, from personal style of life to issues as climate change or migrations, from attitude towards China, Iran or Cuba to the concept of ‘people’ and ‘populism.’”
While the pope’s encyclical on the environment served as an inspiration for negotiations in Paris two years ago, many climate activists hoped lobbying by a popular religious figure might also nudge public opinion on climate among conservatives in the United States. There is little evidence that has happened.
Following the encyclical’s release and the pope’s 2015 U.S. tour, researchers at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found a short-term increase in the number of Americans who said climate change was a “moral,” “social justice” or “poverty” issue. Soon after, however, they found public opinion returned to pre-encyclical levels.
“It was him coming to the Untied States, where he got 24-7, wall-to-wall coverage …. we saw a significant impact on public opinion,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “We also found that six months later, that effect had faded away.”
Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman whose progressive views on climate change contributed to his defeat in a South Carolina primary in 2010, said of the pope’s encyclical, “I do acknowledge that it hasn’t exactly — it hasn’t yet turned into the barn burner that I had hoped that it might have been.”
For conservatives, Francis may be an imperfect messenger, controversial for his relatively progressive views not only on climate, but on marriage and immigration. The pope and Trump traded jabs during the presidential campaign last year about Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement just days after a visit in which the pope handed him a copy of his encyclical, Laudato Si.
“I’ve got a Catholic friend in Congress who will go nameless, who told me that, and he was only halfway joking, that he thinks this pope is the anti-Christ,” Inglis said. “There’s a contingent of American Catholics who really think that the pope has left the reservation.”
Inglis said he is optimistic for the long-term effect of the pope’s advocacy on climate change, as the issue is taught in local parishes and other religious organizations. Climate activist Bill McKibben said the Catholic Church is “one of those bureaucracies through which things work their way kind of slowly,” and he said its effects will likely percolate for years.
But Francis is also suffering in America from a problem that he shares with Trump: a declining base. Though about 1 in 5 American adults are still affiliated with the Catholic Church, their numbers are in decline. A survey last month from the Pew Research Center found a majority of U.S. adults do not think it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. And regardless of religious affiliation, climate change has failed in recent elections to register a top level of concern for most voters.
Jim Nicholson, the former secretary of Veterans Affairs and Republican National Committee chairman who served as ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush, said Trump’s relationship with the Vatican “got off to a ragged start” but has improved steadily and is now “pretty good.” He cited Trump’s nomination of Callista Gingrich, the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to be ambassador to the Holy See.
“There are obvious differences on some subjects, like climate and immigration and the death penalty, always. But there’s an awful lot of alignment in values — religious freedom and trafficking and life,” he said.
Trump has said he is withdrawing from the Paris agreement because it puts the United States “at a very, very big economic disadvantage.” But he heartened many religious leaders with his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and his opposition to funding for nongovernment organizations that perform abortions.
For many religious voters, said Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, matters such as abortion and Supreme Court nominations carry more weight at the ballot box than climate change.
“The problem is that [climate change] is not on the radar screen of the reasons they vote yet at this point in time,” Hescox said. “That’s my job, is to help them to see why it is as important as being pro-life. Our No. 1 message is that climate change is a pro-life issue.”
Climate experts stewed throughout the Vatican meeting over global climate projections they described as “horrific,” “terrifying” and “depressing.”
Brown, who left the Vatican for an 80-minute meeting with Arturo Sosa, the superior general of the Jesuits, said Saturday night that he is “going around enlisting allies” in the battle over climate change.
“What it all comes down to is we’ve got to act sooner, and we have to act more decisively, and that’s not happening,” Brown said. “There’s real horror in store for us if we don’t take action.”
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