The funniest line of the last few days came from Arizona’s Republican Congressman Paul Gosar.
Resentful that Pope Francis might blaspheme the sacred chamber of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body with some inconvenient truth about global warming, Gosar announced he would boycott the Holy Father’s visit to Capitol Hill. He then declared, “If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time.”
Now that’s funny. Not intentionally funny because this is a member of the House of Representatives who says many silly things and actually means them. Like the time earlier this year when he told a town hall that the cash from Social Security and other government benefits that undocumented immigrants allegedly were sending home made up the second largest component of Mexico’s gross domestic product. Who told the White Mountain Apache tribe, “You’re still wards of the federal government.” A man who, though Catholic, won’t give the pope the time of day but once accepted the endorsement of controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio and drove to Nevada to declare his support for right-wing lawbreaker and racist Cliven Bundy.
Also, I wonder, what exactly does Rep. Gosar imagine the pope usually does with “his personal time?” Catch up on his Netflix? Chow down at Olive Garden with his Never Ending Pasta Pass? Head to the rifle range for some target practice?
Instead, I’m guessing thoughtful prayer and meditation. (And come to think of it, WHAT personal time?)
You can argue that a joint session of Congress is an inappropriate speaking venue for a world religious leader, violation of church and state and so forth. And many of us have big, big issues with the Roman Catholic Church. As journalist and climate activist Wen Stephenson writes in the current issue of The Nation, “However sincere and compassionate he may be (and he appears to be both), in his role as the pope he’s a politician, a world leader at the head of a rich, powerfully influential, and entirely human—that is, deeply fallible—global institution. And he presides over a conservative theological tradition whose teachings on gender, sexuality, marriage, contraception, and abortion are, to many of us, and women in particular, not only wrong but oppressive. For these and other reasons, his ability to single-handedly reshape climate politics, especially in this country, is limited, to say the least . . .
“Nevertheless, what is surprising and undeniably significant about Francis’s message is the forceful way he foregrounds a radical systemic analysis of the deep structural causes of the climate and ecological crisis, the kind of radical response required, and the political and economic forces standing in the way.”
Frankly, despite the separation of church and state argument, this is no time for business—or politics—as usual. And months before his Capitol Hill address, the pontiff demonstrated that he had Congress’ number. “We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations,” he wrote in his June encyclical Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”
Example: last week’s revelations from the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Inside Climate News. Their eight-month investigation, including extensive interviews and access to internal documents demonstrates that as early as 1977, Exxon Corporation was warned that “carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.”
The petrochemical giant “assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.” They seem to have been decent corporate citizens—especially compared to today. The head of theoretical sciences at Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories even wrote, in 1982, that their “ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature. Indeed to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”
And so they did publish, but then, according to the Inside Climate News investigative team, “Toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.”
And so it goes. “The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests,” the pope wrote in his climate encyclical. “Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.”
An obstacle to be circumvented—which brings us back around to the GOP of Paul Gosar and his ilk. Just two weeks ago, Politico’s Andrew Restuccia reported, “Top Republican lawmakers are planning a wide-ranging offensive—including outreach to foreign officials by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office—to undermine President Barack Obama’s hopes of reaching an international climate change agreement that would cement his environmental legacy.
“The GOP strategy, emerging after months of quiet discussions, includes sowing doubts about Obama’s climate policies at home and abroad, trying to block key environmental regulations in Congress, and challenging the legitimacy of the president’s attempts to craft a global agreement without submitting a treaty to the Senate.”
It is not for nothing that since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the gas and oil industry has contributed more than $1.8 million to McConnell (and it’s not for nothing that in the short time since 2010, when he was first elected to the House, Paul Gosar has collected nearly $200,000 from the energy and natural resources sector).
Joe Romm of the indispensable Climate Progress blog wrote, “McConnell’s actions end the pretense that the GOP leadership has any interest whatsoever in trying to globally address the gravest preventable threat America faces . . . I’m not sure a major political leader has ever pursued a strategy that is so directly counter to the health and well-being of all Americans, their children, and the next 50 generations.”
It is cynical, hypocritical, mercenary, and willfully destructive: many things this pope seems not to be. By all means, let him speak to Congress. When it comes to climate change, he will be a breath of fresh, unpolluted air.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.