Ahead of Vatican climate change summit, skeptics issues strong, blunt warnings to Francis

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Two groups expressing doubt about the wide scientific consensus regarding global climate change have strongly criticized an upcoming Vatican summit on the issue, hosting a press conference in Rome where they also forcefully warned Pope Francis against speaking on the subject.

Claiming that globally used models of the effects of carbon emissions on the environment are invalid, speakers at the event said the pope would be making a "great mistake" if he expressed support for Tuesday's Vatican event or tackled climate change in his upcoming encyclical of the environment.

One speaker, comparing the subject to the 17th century trial by the church of Galileo Galilei, said the pope would demean his office if he put his moral authority behind those fighting climate change.

"You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance," British peer Christopher Monckton warned, speaking at the event as if he were talking to Francis directly.

Then, saying that efforts to curtail carbon emissions would most directly affect the poor, Monckton imagined telling the pope: "You will be kicking the poor in the teeth. Stand back and listen to both sides. And do not take sides in politics."

Monckton, a Catholic British hereditary peer who is a part of the UK Independence Party, was one of about a half-dozen speakers at the event, which was hosted by the Cornwall Alliance and the Heartland Institute.

Since 2008, the Heartland Institute has sponsored 10 conferences on climate change, deemed “an annual pilgrimage for the key [climate] skeptics” by an October 2012 Frontline report that examined the climate skeptic movement.

Related: “Funding climate change denial: Report points to interlocking efforts of US, European think tanks

The Vatican event at issue for the two groups is a summit on climate change hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The one-day conference -- titled "Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development" -- will see remarks by several Vatican officials, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Also speaking Tuesday will be Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Related: “Turkson talks papal encyclical, 'integral ecology' at Irish lecture

Speakers at Monday's press conference opposing the Vatican event sharply criticized the meeting and bluntly offered advice to the pope.

Monckton, who was an advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, started his address by quoting from the Bible at length in Latin, specifically a passage where Jesus tells Pontius Pilate he has come to "bear witness to the truth."  

"It is not the business of the church to stray from the field of faith and morals and wander into the playground that is science," Monckton said.

Marc Morano, a former advisor to U.S. Senator James Inhofe and who now runs the website Climate Depot, said that Tuesday's event would "sow confusion" among Catholics about the teachings of the church.

"The Vatican is essentially going to confuse Catholics into thinking that your position [on climate change] ... is now an article of faith, is part of Catholic doctrine," Morano said.

Morano and others at the event also cited Francis' concern for those impoverished around the world, saying that policies to fight climate change would limit opportunities for growth in developing countries.

"Fossil fuels are the moral choice for the developing world," said Morano, who also quoted what he said were words by Australian Cardinal George Pell on the subject.

Pell has voiced his own skepticism of climate change in the past, most notably in 2011 in a lecture hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a U.K.-based think tank that has challenged the science of climate change and policies addressing it.

Tuesday's Vatican event is to have four panel discussions on different aspects of climate change, and is also expected to see the release of some kind of joint statement on the subject.

Francis' upcoming encyclical on environmental issues is expected to be released in June or July.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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