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What Jeb Bush can learn from Pope Francis about climate change

Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush answers questions from employees of Nephron Pharmaceutical Company June 29, 2015 in West Columbia, South Carolina. Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush answers questions from employees of Nephron Pharmaceutical Company June 29, 2015 in West Columbia, South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush answers questions from employees of Nephron Pharmaceutical Company June 29, 2015 in West Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph by Sean Rayford — Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has a climate change problem. He also has a Pope problem, and the two are converging with Pope Francis’ latest encyclical declaring humanity’s moral and ethical responsibility to tackle climate change.

Several prominent Bushes have had a nuanced, some might say tortured, relationship with climate change, expressing ideas that aren’t quite in keeping with the Democratic Party but are definitely not in line with the majority of Republicans either. H.W., George W. and Jeb Bush have taken similar approaches on immigration: not quite open-armed, but not hostile, either.

The politics surrounding climate change go back decades. George H.W. Bush was a congressman in the 1960s around the time President Lyndon Johnson was first briefed and testimony was first offered about the dangers of CO₂ emissions from burning fossil fuels. Running for President, the senior Bush made bold statements about the need for aggressive action on climate change as a way to differentiate himself from Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, only to be criticized by environmentalists for tepid action once in office.

Following a similar trajectory, George W. Bush called for mandatory action on climate change while running for president in 2000, a position he quickly dropped once elected. He eventually changed his stance yet again in 2007, publicly admitting climate change is real, likely man-made, and worth tackling. That said, he left office without signing into law any meaningful legislation mandating lower emissions, leaving that to his successors.

Fast forward another 15 years, and we can see that Jeb Bush’s views on climate also have been nuanced. Republican orthodoxy for years has required outright denial of climate change, but Florida’s risks to rising sea levels and other deleterious effects of global warming are particularly acute. Compared with his successor, Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, who forbade the mention of climate change within state government, Jeb Bush’s irresolute position that climate change might be real but is too expensive to deal with makes him look like a climate activist from the right flank.

But that complicated, nuanced positioning was just made more complex by the Pope’s strongly worded encyclical and emphatic call for action on climate change.

Why? Because Jeb Bush, son, grandson and brother of famous Protestant politicians, is Catholic. Republicans who long have been clamoring for more religion in politics, suddenly are second-guessing that notion. And in an even stranger twist of fate, or faith, Democrats who have been pushing for the opposite are having the same emotion.

So what’s a candidate to do if he’s from a family with a history of half-hearted statements and actions on climate change, in a political party whose backers and platform deny man’s role in climate change, from a state that stands to suffer dramatically from its effects, and a man of faith whose religious leader calls for forceful action on the issue?

Here’s how Bush and his Republican competitors for the Presidential nomination can use the Pope’s message to tackle climate change aggressively, effectively, and economically.

First, they need to adopt the position that tackling climate change is consistent with the culture of life promoted elsewhere in their platform. Climate change’s worst potential impacts could mean massive famine from widespread drought and reduced crop yields caused by high temperatures that decrease photosynthetic efficiency, wiped out shore lines that displace millions, and risks of diseases. This is an opportunity to remove the inherent inconsistency of promoting the sanctity of life in one plank of the party platform while opposing environmental protections in another.

Second, they can beef up the religious imperative of stewardship, already sprinkled throughout their platform on various issues, as justification for action on climate change.

Third, they can point to the significant economic benefits to the United States. As the world wants to decarbonize, they will want our natural gas, wind, and solar resources along with our nuclear know-how, carbon capture capabilities, energy efficient technologies, investors, and experts. Not to mention all the economic benefits of cleaner air and water that will accompany widespread decarbonization. Getting the world to reduce its carbon emissions will be good business for the United States.

Both H.W. and George W. Bush demonstrated capacities for breaking with the mainstream of their party when they thought it was in the best interests of the country. George H.W. raised taxes to kick off an era of balanced national budgets, and George W. Bush promoted sound policies in support of energy efficient lightbulbs and automobiles, despite the rhetoric of their fellow Republicans. Not legacy defining positions, perhaps, but certainly precedents of significance.

The Pope has cleared the way for Jeb Bush to show the same kind of leadership on climate change, finding a reasonable path forward that is good for the nation, even if it puts him out of step with partisan orthodoxy. Only time will tell whether his party leaders or his religious leaders hold sway over his policies.

Michael E. Webber is a Professor in Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas Austin and also serves as Deputy Director of the university’s Energy Institute.