Cli­mate doubters un­able to stop pope

Ef­forts to al­ter land­mark doc­u­ment are no match for a de­ter­mined pon­tiff


VAT­I­CAN CITY — Pope Fran­cis was about to take a ma­jor step back­ing the science be­hind hu­man-driven global warm­ing, and Philippe de Larmi­nat was de­ter­mined to change his mind.

A French doubter who au­thored a book ar­gu­ing that so­lar ac­tiv­ity — not green­house gases — was driv­ing global warm­ing, de Larmi­nat sought a spot at a cli­mate sum­mit in April spon­sored by the Vat­i­can’s Pon­tif­i­cal Academy of Sciences. No­bel lau­re­ates would be there. So would U.N. Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon, U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs and oth­ers call­ing for dra­matic steps to curb car­bon emis­sions.

Af­ter se­cur­ing a high-level meet­ing at the Vat­i­can, he was told that, space per­mit­ting, he could join. He bought a plane ticket from Paris to Rome. But five days be­fore the April 28 sum­mit, de Larmi­nat said, he re­ceived an e-mail say­ing there was no space left. It came af­ter other sci­en­tists — as well as the pow­er­ful Vat­i­can bu­reau­crat in charge of the academy— in­sisted

he had no busi­ness be­ing there.

“They did not want to hear an off note,” de Larmi­nat said.

The in­ci­dent high­lights how cli­mate-change doubters tried and failed to al­ter the land­mark pa­pal doc­u­ment un­veiled last week — one that saw the leader of 1 bil­lion Catholics fuse faith and rea­son and come to the con­clu­sion that “de­nial” is wrong.

It marked the latest blow for those seek­ing to stop the re­for­m­minded train that has be­come Fran­cis’s pa­pacy. It is one that has rein­vig­o­rated lib­eral Catholics even as it has sowed the seeds of re­sent­ment and dis­sent in­side and out­side the Vat­i­can’s an­cient walls.

Yet the bat­tle lost over cli­mate change also sug­gests how hard it may be for crit­ics to blunt the power of a man who has be­come some­thing of a jug­ger­naut in an in­sti­tu­tion where change tends to un­fold over decades, even cen­turies. More than any­thing, to those who doubt the hu­man im­pact of global warm­ing, the po­si­tion staked out by Fran­cis in his pa­pal doc­u­ment, known as an en­cycli­cal, means a ma­jor de­feat.

“This was their Waterloo,” said Kert Davies, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cli­mate In­ves­ti­ga­tions Cen­ter, who has been track­ing cli­mate-change de­niers for years. “They wanted the en­cycli­cal not to hap­pen. And it hap­pened.”

Pa­pal ad­vis­ers say Fran­cis sig­naled his in­tent to draft a ma­jor doc­u­ment on the en­vi­ron­ment soon af­ter as­sum­ing the throne of St. Peter in March 2013. His in­ter­est in the topic dates to his days as a bishop in Buenos Aires, where Fran­cis, of­fi­cials say, was struck by the ef­fects of floods and un­san­i­tary con­di­tions on Ar­gen­tine shan­ty­towns known as “mis­ery vil­lages.”

In Jan­uary, Fran­cis of­fi­cially an­nounced his goal of draft­ing the en­cycli­cal — say­ing af­ter an of­fi­cial visit to the Philip­pines that he wanted to make a “con­tri­bu­tion” to the de­bate ahead of a ma­jor U.N. sum­mit on cli­mate change in Paris in De­cem­ber.

But sev­eral ef­forts by those skep­ti­cal of the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on cli­mate change to in­flu­ence the doc­u­ment ap­pear to have come con­sid­er­ably later — in April — and, maybe, too late.

In late April, the Chicagob­ased Heart­land In­sti­tute, a free-mar­ket group that serves as a hub of skep­ti­cism re­gard­ing the science of hu­man-caused global warm­ing, sent a del­e­ga­tion to the Vat­i­can. As a Heart­land news re­lease put it, they hoped “to in­form Pope Fran­cis of the truth about cli­mate science: There is no global warm­ing cri­sis!”

It was meant to co­in­cide with the same April meet­ing that de Larmi­nat was try­ing to at­tend. Heart­land’s ac­tivists were not part of the in­vited con­tin­gent, ei­ther, Heart­land com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Jim Lakely said.

“It was a side event,” he said. “We were out­side the walls of the Vat­i­can. We were at a ho­tel — lit­er­ally, I could throw a football into St. Peter’s Square.”

Seven sci­en­tists and other ex­perts gave speeches at the Heart­land event, rais­ing doubts about var­i­ous as­pects of the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on cli­mate change, even as sev­eral also urged the pope not to take sides in the de­bate. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know how that in­flu­enced those in the Vat­i­can work­ing on the pope’s doc­u­ment — which one Vat­i­can of­fi­cial said was at “an ad­vanced stage.” But Lakely said his group did not see much of its ar­gu­ment re­flected in the fi­nal doc­u­ment.

“We all want the poor to live bet­ter lives, but we just don’t think the so­lu­tion to that is to re­strict the use of fos­sil fu­els, be­cause we don’t think CO2 is caus­ing a cli­mate cri­sis,” Lakely said. “So if that’s our mes­sage in a sen­tence, that mes­sage was not re­flected in the en­cycli­cal, so there you go.”

One mem­ber of the Heart­land del­e­ga­tion was E. Calvin Beis­ner, a the­olo­gian and founder of an evan­gel­i­cal group called the Cornwall Al­liance for the Stew­ard­ship of Cre­ation. In April, the group launched an “open let­ter” to the pope, signed by more than 100 scholars and the­olo­gians, ar­gu­ing that cli­mate-change mod­els “pro­vide no ra­tio­nal ba­sis to forecast dan­ger­ous hu­manin­duced global warm­ing, and there­fore no ra­tio­nal ba­sis for ef­forts to re­duce warm­ing by re­strict­ing the use of fos­sil fu­els or any other means.”

Beis­ner said he thinks that “be­tween a quar­ter and a third” of the sign­ers were Catholic. He said he is not to­tally un­happy with the pope’s en­cycli­cal — he ap­pre­ci­ates the sec­tions on the need to help the poor and “the sanc­tity of hu­man life.” But as for the cli­mate sec­tion, he said, Fran­cis is “writ­ing in an area that is not his own back­ground, and it looks to me as if he was poorly served by his ad­viser.”

Fol­low­ing his pre­de­ces­sors

Based on the peo­ple he re­cently ap­pointed to his coun­cil for science, Fran­cis was also seen to have made up his mind on the ques­tion of global warm­ing. Some prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tives — par­tic­u­larly eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tives — were con­sulted by the Vat­i­can dur­ing the process, but “many were sort of shocked that none of their con­tri­bu­tions made it in there,” Ray­mond Ar­royo, news di­rec­tor at the Catholic megachan­nel EWTN, said Fri­day.

In­stead, the pope sought to build on the pro­gres­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal plat­forms es­tab­lished by his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, Bene­dict XVI and John Paul II. For ad­vice, he turned to a num­ber of sci­en­tific ad­vis­ers who sup­port the con­sen­sus that hu­man ac­tiv­ity is warm­ing the Earth. They in­cluded Hans Joachim Schellnhu­ber, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search in Ger­many.

A pro­fessed athe­ist, Schellnhu­ber nev­er­the­less saw a chance for a mas­sive coup in the cli­mate de­bate if a sit­ting pope is­sued an ode to Earth and the ills of car­bon emis­sions. But not ev­ery­one, he said, seemed to want the en­cycli­cal to take sides.

He said he was stunned to hear that de Larmi­nat, the French doubter, al­most made it to the key Vat­i­can cli­mate sum­mit in April. To him, it showed that “even within the Vat­i­can, there were some peo­ple who would like to see some­thing that pre­sented both sides.”

De Larmi­nat had a cor­dial meet­ing in March with Car­di­nal Peter Turk­son, a se­nior mem­ber of the clergy and a key sup­porter of the pope’s en­cycli­cal. At the meet­ing, both men said, Turk­son promised to try to se­cure a space for the French­man at the April sum­mit.

How­ever, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chan­cel­lor of the Pon­tif­i­cal Academy of Sciences — a body of lu­mi­nar­ies, re­li­gious and not, dat­ing back decades but with roots in the 17th cen­tury — ef­fec­tively ve­toed de Larmi­nat's pres­ence. Asked why, Sánchez Sorondo re­sponded in an e-mail, “be­cause he’s not an aca­demic au­thor­ity in this field, nei­ther a re­li­gious au­thor­ity nor a U.N. au­thor­ity.”

Turk­son, how­ever, said that he was told only that the sum­mit was “well over­booked.”

Dur­ing Fran­cis’s 27 months as pope, some­thing of a con­ser­va­tive re­sis­tance has formed to his more pro­gres­sive tone. It par­tic­u­larly showed it­self dur­ing fierce the­o­log­i­cal de­bates in Oc­to­ber that saw con­ser­va­tives suc­cess­fully scrap lan­guage in a church doc­u­ment that would have rec­og­nized “the gifts and qual­i­ties” of gay peo­ple.

Some con­ser­va­tives, in­clud­ing U.S. Car­di­nal Ray­mond Burke, have pub­licly de­nied a rift with the pope while also openly warn­ing of a lib­eral strain cours­ing through the church. And a num­ber of leaks in the Ital­ian news media— in­clud­ing of the en­cycli­cal it­self — have sparked a flurry of in­trigue over pos­si­ble con­spir­a­cies in­side the Vat­i­can.

Luigi Vic­i­nanza, editor of the mag­a­zine L’Espresso, which pub­lished the leaked draft of the en­cycli­cal, said he had per­son­ally ob­tained it from a source. He would not iden­tify the source but said he did not think the per­son was “out to harm the pope.”

Still, some pope watch­ers blame sev­eral leaks on an anti-Fran­cis ca­bal in­side the Vat­i­can walls. Oth­ers say that not enough ev­i­dence has emerged to pin the leaks on a spe­cific agenda.

Sánchez Sorondo, how­ever, de­nied that there had been sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion to the pope’s en­cycli­cal. He in­sisted that rather than from in­side Vat­i­can City, the pri­mary pres­sure against its mes­sage had come from cli­mate-change de­niers — par­tic­u­larly in the United States.

“But it is clear that this pope is very coura­geous,” said Sánchez Sorondo, who, like Fran­cis, is an Ar­gen­tine. “He is not a politi­cian. He is not a diplo­mat. He is some­one who is will­ing to say what oth­ers are afraid to say.”

“But it is clear that this pope is very coura­geous. He is not a politi­cian. He is not a diplo­mat. He is some­one who is will­ing to say what oth­ers are afraid to say.”

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chan­cel­lor of the Pon­tif­i­cal Academy of Sciences


Peo­ple frolic at Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro. Pope Fran­cis’s en­cycli­cal on cli­mate change calls for pro­tec­tion of the world’s oceans and cli­mate via “en­force­able in­ter­na­tional agree­ments.”

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