What we can’t do, Francis can

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Pope Francis can be the trigger for a larger movement within the centre-right in order to forge a successful climate policy, writes Kathleen Van Brempt.

Kathleen Van Brempt is Vice-President of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament.

For more than a decade now, progressive politicians and activists have campaigned to take action against climate change. It has helped, but not nearly enough to have a significant impact. We are simply not able to convince conservatives and the centre-right that urgent action is needed. But now we have Francis, whose authoritative voice can reach the audience we need to help forge a successful climate policy.
Laudato Si, the papal Encyclical, could well be a game changer in the debates leading up to the major climate conference in Paris later this year. An ambitious climate deal at COP21 requires courageous political decisions. Politicians will only take those decisions if a large majority of the population accepts and recognizes that urgent action is needed.
The Union’s enlargement to the East and the economic crisis have had a negative impact on the European conservatives’ position regarding climate change. Economic competitiveness is used by Christian-democrats as a major argument to block key measures in the fight against climate change. Until now their voters approved. Eurostat data show that the centre-right electorate is less concerned about climate change than progressive voters. They often think that the threats of climate change are being ‘exaggerated’ and therefore distrust the ‘green messengers of doom’.
In Europe, Eastern European voters in particular are less concerned about climate change. This has much to do with their outdated energy production system, in which fossil fuels continue to play a major part. A prime example is Poland, whose economy still runs on coal plants. Measures to prevent subsidies for coal plants or plans to phase them out hit a Polish nerve. But the Polish people, like many other Eastern Europeans, are also predominantly Catholic. In such an environment, Franciscus can play an important role.
In the United States Francis can also have a decisive impact. To ratify a climate agreement, a two-thirds majority is needed, which means that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can get cold feet. Francis’ appeal could help Republicans to overcome their fear.
It is now clear that progressives will never be able to convince the centre-right part of society that urgent action is needed. We have unsuccessfully swamped them with statistics, infographics, pie charts and lengthy reports, or preached to them in trendy Al Gore-like roadshows. The more we did so, the less the centre-right believed us. People are more inclined to believe a messenger who shares their values ??and distrust messengers with other value systems. Progressives are unsuited to convince conservatives. The message must come from their inner circle. That also applies to liberals who urgently need an authority figure who will argue that climate change is perhaps the greatest market failure in history.
Laudato Si is an ethical appeal that can stir the stewardship for which Christian-democrats were famous, namely the conviction that the earth is a gift from their God and that therefore they should preserve it. That idea of stewardship has come under heavy pressure since the outbreak of the economic crisis. Francis can get Christian-democratic politicians back on track.
Climate change is a formidable challenge that needs cross-party solutions. Without the support and cooperation of the centre-right we are heading for a catastrophe. Francis can be the trigger for a larger movement within the centre-right. It is exactly what we were missing in order to forge a successful climate policy.