Richard Greene

Will Pope Francis alter public attitudes on global warming?

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican last Wednesday.
Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican last Wednesday. AP

Now that another of the world’s most consequential leaders has sounded the alarm over what he says is human-caused global warming, we can ask if his words will significantly alter public concerns over the controversial topic.

Pope Francis declared his belief in scientific findings that the greater part of global warming in the last decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases emitted above all due to human activity.

Climate change activists are cheering his decree while skeptics suggest that he has been misled on the science and is promoting dubious policies.

Regardless of efforts now underway in our country and others around the world to regulate a solution to what has become defined as catastrophic climate change, studies continue to show limited support for government action by the American people.

An update on findings by two of the country’s most respected nonpartisan organizations that have been tracking the question for many years reveals little movement in public opinion.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, the Pew Research Center finds an average of only 30 percent of Americans placing global warming and climate change on the list of two dozen priorities for Washington to address.

Even then, it comes in next to last on that list.

Similar latest results by Gallup Analytics reveal only 24 percent of the country expressing a great deal of worry about climate change, again coming in next to last on their listing of 15 national concerns.

That organization’s Bottom Line conclusion: “Most Americans believe the strange weather reflects natural variations, not global warming.”

Will the pope’s issuance of his predicted encyclical, exercising the highest levels of his authority, materially change the public’s view?

I doubt that it will, and here’s why.

Contrarians within the Vatican are reported to conclude that Francis should not be getting involved in political issues and that he is outside his expertise. The cardinal in charge of the church’s budget has claimed that global warming has ceased.

That view would coincide with repeated declarations from some climate scientists, members of Congress, and some in the media that there has been no warming for the past 18 years.

Then there are reports, including an assertion from President Obama, that last year was the hottest on record.

Also last week we were reminded of a sensational special report from ABC News that aired in 2008 depicting much of New York City under water, gasoline at $9 a gallon and a carton of milk costing $13 — all predicted to ensue this year from apocalyptic results of global warming.

With such confusing messages (there are many more like these), it is no wonder that everyday people remain largely unconvinced and unworried.

The pope’s opinions add but another voice to the perplexing arguments and debates.

Some readers have asked, based on my EPA service, what I think should be done.

There is a good deal of collaboration taking place between the big federal agency and the regulated industries targeted to bring reductions in emissions that lead to higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Often the resulting new rules generally follow the art of the possible without putting the nation’s economy at risk.

That approach, which the EPA has employed since its creation in 1970, has led to longer and healthier lives for the people of our country as a result of a cleaner environment.

I don’t know why those outcomes shouldn’t be a guide to addressing today’s challenge of dealing with this most contentious issue that remains a work in progress.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. mayorgreene@mayorgreene.com

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