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Where Coal Was King, Pope’s Climate Warning Faces a Tricky Sell

In West Virginia, where workers have harvested coal seams for centuries, Pope Francis’ new warning about the risks of fossil fuels will find skepticism even among the faithful.

Monsignor Edward Sadie of Charleston knows this, probably better than most. For the past several weeks, he’s been preaching to his 700-family congregation about how climate change is hurting the vulnerable — the key point in a Papal encyclical that’s expected to be released Thursday.

“He’s gonna be accused of being a radical, and a socialist,” Sadie said in a telephone interview. “But I don’t know anybody that has the opportunity to speak to so many people as does Pope Francis.”

The encyclical endorses a scientific basis for global warming that pins much of the blame on pollution from coal, oil and natural gas. That’s put Catholic leaders in some U.S. oil patches and coal regions in a tricky situation, having to sell the message in areas where the energy industry has long been the lifeblood of the community.

“There will be pushback, absolutely,” said Robert Gorman, executive director of Catholic charities for the Houma-Thibodaux diocese in Louisiana, home to the most refineries in the U.S. after Texas.

“There are already people who say climate change isn’t happening,” he said. “There are people saying, maybe it is happening, but humans have nothing to do with it.”

In South Louisiana, though, there is another factor that supports the Pope’s thesis, according to Gorman. “I can guarantee you, everyone knows that we have relative sea level rise,” he said. “You can see it in our front yards.”

Moral Obligation

Francis’ letter to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics calls on political leaders to do more to replace fossil fuels with less-polluting energies. The encyclical casts the issue in moral terms, saying the poor and vulnerable suffer the most from environmental damage.

Reducing emissions, Francis wrote, demands “honesty, courage and responsibility, above all by the most powerful and most polluting countries,” according to a draft of the document published June 15 by an Italian magazine.

In the U.S., the world’s biggest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, a surge in shale drilling has vaulted oil production to its highest level in four decades.

Polls show U.S. Catholics remain as divided as the rest of the population on global warming, despite the consensus among scientists. Forty-seven percent of the nation’s Catholics believe human activity is behind climate change and 48 percent consider it a very serious problem, virtually the same as the overall population, according to a surveyof 5,100 adults released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

Partisan Divisions

Like most other Americans, U.S. Catholics are split on the issue along political and racial lines, with 85 percent of Catholic Democrats saying the earth is getting hotter, while only 51 percent of Catholic Republicans think so. The survey also found Hispanic Catholics to be more concerned about global warming than white, non-Hispanic parishioners.

If lay Catholics remain divided, the church hierarchy seems to be largely supportive of Francis’ message.

A coalition of groups including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will mail suggestions for homilies based on the encyclical to the church’s 17,000 parishes, said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington. A social-media campaign, theological conferences and other efforts will follow in the coming weeks, he said.

“I don’t think you’re going to see hardly any daylight between what the pope says and where the bishops are,” Misleh said in a telephone interview.

Receptive Audience

In West Virginia, the second-biggest coal producing state after Wyoming, Sadie, rector at the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, said that while there will be questions, he also expects at least some of the pope’s message to find a receptive audience.

“I have many Catholics who make their living off of coal, and have been very successful making money off of coal,” he said. At the same time, people in the region have also seen the industry’s downsides, according to Sadie. He cited mining methods that lop the tops off of Appalachian peaks and can make spigots run black with contaminated drinking water.

“I’m sure the Holy Father will remind us that God has created the world and gave us the use of it, not just for ourselves but for future generations,” Sadie said. “My role is to help people understand the importance of the issue and some of the details of the issue and what impact it has on people other than themselves.”

Sea Levels

Gorman, in Louisiana, said he expects the encyclical to spark complex conversations among parishioners who live at the swampy heart of the U.S. offshore drilling industry. Some people will argue for it, others against it.

His diocese has spent $700,000 over the last decade helping poor and elderly church members retrofit homes imperiled by rising sea levels, he said. Most scientists link the rising levels to warmer oceans and melting polar ice.

“What the Pope’s encyclical will do is say, ‘Folks, climate change is happening,’” he said. “We need to start looking not only to our role as stewards of the environment, and protectors of all of creation, but also need to think about how is this going to affect the poorest and most vulnerable people.”

Copyright 2015 Bloomberg

Lead image: Aleksander Todorovic. Credit: Shutterstock.