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A coming attraction: The test of clout on climate change — Pope Francis or Charles/David

This week’s Vatican “Summit” (where else for a summit?) on the global environment has set the stage for a lengthy contest between  uber-influentials for hearts and minds — and maybe even souls — on this epic issue.

A twelve-week campaign by popular Pope Francis later this year will link climate change with poverty and economic development. It’s expected that the keynote of the campaign will be the Pope’s encyclical on the moral dimensions of environmental degradation and its effect on the poor — this in support of the sweeping United Nations climate change accord to be enacted in Paris in December.

Enter from stage right, the Koch Brothers via the Heartland  Institute, a libertarian think tank partly funded by the brothers, who oppose climate change policy. A Heartland spokesperson: “Though Pope Francis’ heart is surely in the right place, he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate.”

Both camps are making many of their followers uncomfortable.

Many Catholics are politically conservative and are pained by the Catholic Church positioning itself in support of a cause with which they disagree. Of course, a papal encyclical is not morally binding on Catholics and many of them disagree with other teachings of the church. However, there is a powerful precedent — although certainly not recent — for papal encyclicals that have had major public policy impacts. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on labor and worker’s rights is perhaps the best example.

But U.S. Catholic conservative politicians, many of them Republican leaders, who question the science of human-caused climate change, must tread carefully. Several Republican presidential hopefuls — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum — fit that that category. They, and the estimated 30% of members of Congress who are Catholic, can’t afford to be seen in strong public opposition to their pope.

In this scenario, it will be a hot summer.