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World Pope’s call for action on climate change to ripple through public debate

Pope Francis said fossil fuels should be replaced with cleaner sources of energy and that carbon dioxide emissions and other polluting gases be drastically reduced.

Max Rossi/Reuters

Pope Francis's call for urgent action to stop the destruction of the planet and reverse climate change will likely have ripple effects in the public debate over what Canadian and U.S. governments should be doing to curb polluting gases and easing away from oil dependence.

In a 192-page encyclical released Thursday, called Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home, the Pope said fossil fuels should be replaced with cleaner sources of energy and that carbon dioxide emissions and other polluting gases be drastically reduced.

He also said that people living in rich countries should change their energy consumption and lifestyles, and that poorer nations bear the brunt of climate change and should be helped financially.

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The comments will have particular resonance in an election year in Canada.

"In the current Canadian context, issues around how are we going to develop our natural resources for the future and how are we going to develop our economy for the future – these I think are going to be coming more to the front and centre," said Dennis O'Hara, professor of ecological theology at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto.

The Pope's comments are likely to have a greater impact in U.S. politics where faith-based voters will play a large role in the presidential election cycle.

Presidential candidates Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator, questioned the Pope's credibility on climate change, while former Florida governor Jeb Bush said on Tuesday, "I hope I'm not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope." Mr. Bush went on to say that "religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end getting in the political realm."

Now that the full encyclical is released, candidates will have a hard time dodging questions.

"It's a direct slap in the face of the oil and gas industry, which Republicans defend and are reliant on for a lot of contributions for Republican campaigns. So at every level this thing is really tricky for Republican contenders," Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University, said.

The Iowa caucuses is the first contest in the Republican presidential campaign and candidates can expect some discomfort in the Midwest state, where faith-based voters have significant influence and there are large concentrations of Roman Catholics, Professor Schmidt said.

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"Now there is a very powerful authority figure who is not a Democrat or liberal, or not Barack Obama, saying, 'Hold it, this is a serious issue and it affects the quality of life of a lot people – less so in the industrialized countries but it's the poorer third world countries that are paying a big price and we have to do something about it'," he said.

"That's a disruptor for Republican campaigns," he added.

Massimo Faggioli, an associate professor of theology and director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, says he will be watching closely to see how Republican presidential candidates distance themselves from the Pope's comments. "They have to work hard in saying I'm a Catholic politician but I don't take orders from the Pope," he said.

They may be helped by one of the key features of Roman Catholicism in the U.S. – that many who belong to the church see themselves as "being more American than Catholic," he said. That patriotic and nationalist streak is particularly true for those on the right side of the political spectrum, he added.

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