Perhaps it is time to take a lesson from the fellow who rides in the back seat of a Fiat.
Climate change has been an exceptionally challenging political issue for more than a quarter century. How do you talk about it and explain what the future holds, much less develop policies to reduce its likely impacts?
Preparing for the future is never easy. But attempting to mitigate climate change essentially means seeking behavioral changes in the near term (more costs, some adjustments) to increase the prospect that future generations might have a better future (and reduce costs in the long-run).
Given what we know about the behavior of political officials and aspirants, why would anyone want to go near this issue? The inevitable political pull to concentrate benefits in the short term while deferring costs until later times makes this highly unattractive. And that may explain why it is so easy to pile on in opposition to any serious mitigation strategies, including carbon taxes.
Indeed, it is difficult to identify serious public figures who have taken courageous stances on climate change and benefitted politically from doing so. Except for some legislators who were already in fairly safe electoral districts, there is not much evidence to suggest that taking political risks on climate can advance political ambition.
Ask George Pataki and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the statehouse level. Al Gore and Barack Obama waited until after their electoral careers were over to really push on this front. To date, embracing early climate action may increase your prospects of winning a Profile in Courage award, like former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis. But it is surely not a path to the next level of politics. And America does not appear to be unique in this regard.
And then there was Francis.
It is entirely too soon to pass any final judgment on the impact of his encyclical and comments on climate change during his visit. Partisan political affiliation has long produced divides on this issue and will likely not disappear at any time soon.
Yet Francis frames climate change in a way we generally have not heard before, with two key elements.
First, there is a deep integration with core Christian and Roman Catholic teachings in the Gospels. The Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si’, is not an exercise in theory, theological twists, or spin. It draws early and often from Scripture, including many reflections from his Papal predecessors. His numerous critics clearly squirm when confronting this dimension of his message and never really engage it. Indeed, his visit is already a reminder that Americans rarely talk about issues of faith or policy, at least beyond circles that include folks with whom they totally agree.
Second, there is the humility factor. This very word has largely disappeared from American life, certainly in the public sphere. In the climate arena, this is often reflected in staged events, hyped rhetoric, and vilification of people who hold varied views. Francis’ words on this issue are as soft as his voice, but they are clear and focused. They lay out an imperative for engagement, convenient or not.
Is there any prominent American who approaches Francis, either in the depth of his faith or his humility? Imagine how out-of-place such a person would appear on the stage of a Presidential debate, regardless of party? How long would they last in American public life? In some sense, climate change policy needs someone like Francis in American politics, but American politics would never elevate someone like Pope Francis. So, that leaves us with Francis, Servant of the Servants of God.
Perhaps that is part of the reason for the current outpouring of interest and affection, for the person and his message but also the way in which he delivers it. America is already a different place since his arrival but it is far too soon to know if the effects will be lasting, on climate change and much more.
But, for now, enjoy the ride with the fellow who would only travel in the back seat of a Fiat, even with sciatica and a bum knee. As the Pope’s namesake once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”