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Divergent Senate Reactions to Pope’s Call for Environmental Action

Pope Francis addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress Thursday in the Capitol. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Pope Francis addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress Thursday in the Capitol. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Pope Francis never uttered the words “climate change” during his address Thursday to a joint meeting of Congress, but he did tell the elected officials present that protecting Earth is as much part of the “common good” as supporting businesses and job creation.  

In his speech, the pope called “for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” Asked if the pontiff’s message about climate change had the potential to influence his Senate colleagues, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., didn’t sound optimistic.  

“If one Republican would step out as a part of that speech and say we need to talk about this, it would be a dramatic breakthrough,” Durbin said. “Right now it’s very difficult to find any support on the Republican side of the aisle to even discuss the issue.”  

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., the Environment and Public Works Committee chairman who famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor in February during a debate about climate change, said he took the pope’s words as a confirmation of the work already being done by Congress to decrease pollution.  

“What went through my mind is how many more cars are driving, how much more economic activity, since the Clean Air Act amendments and we have a fraction of the pollution,” Inhofe said. “So we are doing that, so I can take that as a compliment.” “He didn’t say the words,” Inhofe said of the “climate change” phrasing. “I can tell you for sure the activist liberals in the audience were disappointed.”  

In his speech, Francis said there is a need “to devise intelligent ways of developing and limiting our power, and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”  

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she “appreciated his message about using our technologies to make a difference. That is certainly something that I have suggested is our answer as we deal with the challenges that we face from an environmental perspective.”  

“Change the way that we do business through our technologies,” she added.  

Clutching two colorful beaded rosaries, Murkowski offered a Capitol Police officer her hand.  

“Feel that … the pope touched those,” she said. “He blessed my rosaries. So, I’m like still agog about the pope right now.”  

Durbin’s guest to the speech was an 84-year-old Dominican nun from Springfield, Ill., who is in the order that taught his daughters’ high school.  

“He’s such an inspiration,” Durbin said of the pope. “Not just his speech, but who he is as a humble man, I think, inspires so many of us to do better things.”  


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