By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis' call Thursday (June 18) for urgent action to address climate change was met with respectful skepticism by Louisiana's three Catholic congressional members.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who once disdainfully challenged Vice President Al Gore's warnings of serious consequences if climate change isn't addressed aggressively, wasn't nearly as dismissive of the Pope. In his message, the Pope said, "Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common house as we have in the last 200 years."
Responded Scalise: "As a Catholic and a father who cares deeply about leaving the best world possible to our children, I believe strongly in the responsible conservation of our environment. In Louisiana, we know that the key to achieving both a healthy environment and a healthy economy is greater innovation, not more Washington regulation.
"While scientists strongly disagree about the cause of changing earth temperatures over thousands of years of history, one thing that is clear is the positive impact that American energy exploration and production has had in lifting people out of poverty, which the Catholic Church promotes, while also increasing the quality of life for people here and all around the world."
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., another Catholic lawmaker, also spoke about the potential negative impact on low-income families from environmental regulations pushed by the Obama administration to deal with climate change.
"Creating more environmental regulations concerns me for some of the same reasons Pope Francis has spoken out -- it will really hurt low-income families," Vitter said. "It also doesn't make sense to put our American families and businesses at a competitive disadvantage based on questionable benefits alleged by the EPA or the U.N. when major carbon emitters like China, India, and Russia aren't playing by the same rules. When people push regulating or taxing carbon dioxide, they need to clearly address the big impact of increasing energy costs on low-income families and hurting blue-collar manufacturing jobs."
Vitter joked that he'll see if his wife, Wendy, who has worked for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "can put in a good word with the Pope on this."
Vitter and other lawmakers will have a chance to see the Pope in person when he addresses a joint session of Congress in September.
Kevin Roig, spokesman for Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, the third Catholic member of the Louisiana delegation, said his boss welcome's the Pope's climate change message and "his call to stewardship."
"Garret has a long history of balancing environmental restoration with ensuring employment opportunities," Roig said. "South Louisiana has long powered the nation, and we expect that our critical energy role will continue."
While some Louisiana members have questioned the conclusiveness of scientists who say that the earth is warming due to human activity, Pope Francis made it clear he doesn't share that skepticism.
"A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system," the Pope said.
Anne Rowles, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environment group, said it's disappointing the state's congressional members aren't embracing the Pope's message.
"Pope Francis writes about politicians beholden to fossil fuels. That dynamic is on sad display here in Louisiana. Steve Scalise and David Vitter -- like John Breaux and Billy Tauzin before them -- have dedicated their careers to protecting polluters and the oil industry," Rowles said. "But the Pope says that in protecting the oil industry, Scalise and Vitter and other politicians are hurting the rest of us, especially the poor. This encyclical is unlikely to change the behavior of our elected officials, but maybe it will inspire the voters to elect people who can acknowledge climate change and pollution and finally stand up to the oil industry."
Some lawmakers welcomed the Pope's message.
"God bless the Pope for speaking the truth to the world about the dangers we face if we don't tackle climate change," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "I hope his words serve as a wakeup call for those who believe the polluters and for those who have worked night and day to stop us from passing legislation that would move us toward clean energy and allow us to avert the catastrophe of unchecked climate change."