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The Lasting Effects of Pope Francis’ Climate Change Edict

New research finds thinking about the pontiff changes the way we frame the issue.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AFP/Getty Images)

Last fall, a study reported that Pope Francis’ much-discussed encyclical on climate change largely fell on deaf ears. Researchers from Texas Tech University found the appeal “failed to rally any broad support on climate change” among Americans, whether or not they were Catholic.

But newly published research suggests the pontiff’s call for taking care of the Earth has had a more subtle impact on American public opinion. It finds brief exposure to a photograph of the pope “increased perceptions of climate change as a moral issue.”

What’s more, this shift in how the issue is perceived was particularly strong among Republicans — a group that has traditionally been resistant to acknowledging the fact that humans are affecting the Earth’s climate in dangerous ways.

“The pope’s message may transcend political boundaries and fundamentally reshape how the issue is conceptualized among the public,” a research team led by Jonathon Schuldt of Cornell University writes in the journal Climatic Change.

The pontiff’s call for taking care of the Earth has had a more subtle impact on American public opinion.

The study utilized an online survey that featured 1,212 American adults. It was conducted in May of 2016—11 months after publication of the encyclical, and seven months after his visit to the United States.

Half the participants were shown a photo of Pope Francis and asked how familiar they were with his views on climate change. All were then asked three climate-change-related questions:

  • “Do you consider climate change to be a moral or ethical issue?”
  • “Do you feel personally responsible to contributing to the causes of climate change?”
  • “Do you feel personally responsible for helping to reduce climate change?”

For each, they answered “Yes, definitely,” “Yes, somewhat,” or “No.”

Among those who had briefly thought about the pope, 51 percent said they viewed climate change as a moral issue. For those who had not, that figure was 46 percent.

This gap was particularly large among Republicans. Thirty-nine percent of those who were exposed to the pope’s image said they considered it a moral issue, compared to 30 percent among those who were not. That’s a potentially important shift, as pondering about the ethical consequences of environmental destruction may shift behavior more effectively than thinking in utilitarian terms.

Similarly, the percentage of people who felt personally responsible for contributing to climate change increased from 48 to 52 if they had seen the photo of the pope. On this issue, it was Democrats who made the difference: Sixty-four percent of those who were exposed to the pontiff expressed responsibility, compared to 56 percent who were not.

Thinking about the pope did not increase the percentage of Republicans who felt personal responsibility for climate change, which stayed steady at 36 percent.

Nevertheless, the results suggest a reminder of the pope’s views can change the ways members of both parties think about the issue. Given the dangers of inertia, that has to be a positive sign.