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Pope, Hillary Clinton Give Environmentalist Cause For Applause

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Visiting the White House yesterday, Pope Francis spoke about the environment.

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POPE FRANCIS: Climate change is a problem. We can no longer be left to our future generations.

INSKEEP: Francis was following up on an encyclical, a letter in which he called for action on climate change. Environmentalists were thrilled. A wealthy Democratic activist and fundraiser is promoting that message. Tom Steyer paid for an ad summarizing the pope.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Dear world, we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.

INSKEEP: Steyer's side won a victory just as the pope arrived. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she opposed the politically sensitive Keystone Pipeline.

TOM STEYER: I think that the United States of America has moved. And I think Mrs. Clinton has moved with the rest of the country to understanding the urgency and primacy of the issue.

INSKEEP: That's what Tom Steyer hopes, though the evidence is mixed as to where the country is moving. Surveys show wide concern about man-made climate change. But when Steyer spent money on the issue in last year's elections, many of his Democratic candidates lost. Now he's hoping the pope will encourage voters to give the issue more importance.

STEYER: We have the most profound respect and admiration for Pope Francis. We think that he speaks to this issue in a way that maybe no one else can from a moral standpoint and that he has unparalleled credibility and trust with the people. So we felt that anything we could do to amplify his message, to get more people to hear it, to understand just how profound what he's saying is, would be something that would be a blessing to the United States and Americans.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the fact that popes generally are wildly popular in the United States. And yet Americans do not necessarily follow the teachings of the popes that they love. And I was listening recently - I'd like to play you some tape - this is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

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JAMES INHOFE: People keep coming up to me and saying that the pope has a direct line to God. And I said, well, so do I. I'm a Jesus guy and I notice it - but I don't agree with the pope. For him to get into things like gun control and, like, global warming and the whole left agenda doesn't mean that that's going to change me or anybody else.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that Americans who are skeptical on climate or who simply haven't been that engaged on issue are going to listen to the pope, they will respect and admire the pope, but they're just not going to change their political positions on anything?

STEYER: Of course that's possible, but I think something else is really true. I think it's very hard when someone with the kind of gravitas, the kind of significance and seriousness that he brings to any issue - if he makes an absolute call, the way he did in his encyclical, for people to think about an issue in a certain way, I think, at a minimum, it asks people to please take this seriously and think really hard about what they believe.

INSKEEP: What lessons did you learn from the 2014 election in which you involved yourself in a number of campaigns? There were a couple of governors that you supported who won. But Rick Scott of Florida kept his seat in spite of your opposition. There were some key Senate races that your side lost.

STEYER: Yes, I know that that is how some people look at this. And we look at this as having been probably the single greatest coalition-building exercise on this topic ever. If you look what's happened to the people of the United States between the beginning of 2013 and today, there has been a dramatic move across the spectrum, in both parties, to our way of thinking. So I think people tended to look at '14 in terms of specific election outcomes. We looked at it in terms of the movement of the American people, and the movement's been dramatic, all in our direction.

INSKEEP: Match up that dramatic movement, though, with the fact that your party and your side on this specific issue lost key Senate races, lost control of the Senate.

STEYER: If you look at 2014, we really didn't get the kind of Democratic participation that would've meant that we would've won all those elections. So the fact of the matter is the people's opinions moved really dramatically, but not enough people came out and voted. In fact, it was the lowest turnout since 1942. So when we think about the coalition that we actually have, we actually think the coalition has been built. The question is, do they prioritize it highly enough, both to come out and vote and to be this one of the major determinants - or the major determinant of how they vote? When that happens, this issue is over.

INSKEEP: Here's the problem Tom Steyer faces as a new election looms. Surveys show public concern about climate, but Steyer admits voters do not rank it as a top issue. By coincidence or not, his reading of polls matches the pope's recent encyclical. While calling for action, Francis criticized what he called indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.