Though Pope Francis won’t release his encyclical on the environment until this summer, the conservative contingent of the American commentariat has already rendered its verdict. Feverish disavowals of the encyclical — the contents of which are known only by subject matter and not one jot by text — have appeared in major conservative outlets, from Fox News to Forbes to sundry right-wing Catholic magazines. What is the substance of their furor?
The sheer diversity of complaints issuing from those who have no specific knowledge of the letter’s content should be enough to indicate a more general animus motivating these hypothetical gripes. In Forbes, Steve Moore accused Francis of advancing a “modern pagan green religion” and proclaimed that the encyclical will, through circuitous routes, “make the poor poorer.” On a Dec. 30 edition of Fox News’ “Special Report,” correspondent Doug McKelway surmised that the letter would put Francis in line with “environmental extremists who favor widespread birth control.” Crisis magazine, a hard-right Catholic publication, featured a piece by Rachel Lu suggesting that the unpublished encyclical “smack[s] of intellectual faddism,” while Maureen Mullarkey opined in a First Things post that the pope’s letter is evidence that “he is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.” A pompous pagan pope with no concern for the poor doesn’t sound much like the foot-washing Francis we all know, but the accusation that the pontiff is an ideologue is likely more telling than the author intended.
After all, climate change is just another proxy war for the greater struggle between progressivism and conservatism in the United States. Siding with the environment is, in some reactionary circles, tantamount to condemning the values of the right. The partisan split over climate change is evident even within the GOP: Only 25 percent of tea partyers believe climate change is taking place, compared with 61 percent of their more centrist Republican compatriots. In other words, the farther right you are on the conservative spectrum, the less likely it is that you believe climate change is real.
But there appears to be another conservative tendency driving these bellicose outbursts about an as-yet unseen encyclical: American exceptionalism. While commitment to the notion that the United States is the greatest country in the world among Republicans appears to be declining, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 37 percent still felt the United States “stands above all other countries” (compared with 25 percent of Democrats). In 2011 the number was 52 percent, suggesting the decline might be related to subsequent political developments, such as the GOP’s loss in the 2012 presidential election. Whatever the reason, conservatives still seem especially wrapped up in a nostalgic consideration of the U.S. and its deeds as great, and the subject of climate change is no exception.
Outside the U.S. bubble, many countries are serious about confronting climate change. According to a 2013 Pew survey of 39 nations, 65 percent of respondents in Latin America, 56 percent in the Asia-Pacific region and 54 percent in Africa considered climate change a major threat. In Latin America and Asia, climate change was considered a bigger threat than international financial instability, Islamic extremism, North Korean nuclear capability and U.S. or Chinese hegemony. In the U.S. only 40 percent of those surveyed considered climate change a major threat; most respondents were more worried about North Korean nuclear power.
Last year Americans showed a little more concern about climate change — 48 percent of respondents in a Pew poll rated climate change a major threat — but worries about Islamic extremism, North Korean nukes and Iranian nuclear power remained higher concerns. Climate change was also found to be low on the priority lists of American politicians.
The arguments of American conservatives who oppose action on climate change — that Francis’ encyclical will, for instance, make the “poor poorer” in developing economies worldwide — simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. The concerns of Francis’ native Latin America counter the insinuation that the pope has overlooked the rest of the world in favor of an American cultural fad. While it is the rarefied élites of the liberal coasts who tend to care about climate change in the U.S., concern abroad is far more widespread.
It’s unsurprising that conservatives in the U.S. who possess an inflated sense of self-regard would limit their purview of concern to American shores. But by implicating Francis as yet another antagonistic leftist, they are tangling the pontiff in a myopically American narrative in which he does not belong. The Catholic Church is a global community, and Francis a distinctly global pope; he recently appointed 20 new cardinals, none of them from the United States and only one a native English speaker. He is not party to petty American political tribalism, and those who so narrowly interpret his unpublished letters gravely misapprehend his role. When Francis’ encyclical arrives, it will by no means be intended for stateside eyes alone.