Texas Tech University

Despite Papal Letter, Catholics and the Public Politically Divided on Climate Change

George Watson

October 24, 2016

Nan Li

Research authored by a Texas Tech professor shows the views of Catholics and non-Catholics both before and after the papal letter moved minimally.

Nan Li
Nan Li

A recent study authored by a new Texas Tech University researcher shows the pope's encyclical citing a scientific consensus on the existence of human causes to climate change has had little to no effect on the views of both Catholics and non-Catholics in America on the issue.

Nan Li, who began in August as an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, was the lead author on a collaborative study with colleagues at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania that examined the public's views on climate change both before and after the papal letter was released in 2015.

The paper, titled “Cross-pressuring conservative Catholics? Effects of Pope Francis' encyclical on the U.S. public opinion on climate change,” found Catholics' and non-Catholics' awareness of the papal letter, which also highlighted the disproportionate risks climate change poses to the world's poor in addition to giving religious credence to scientific evidence, was not associated with an increase in their public concerns over climate change.

“While Pope Francis' environmental call may have increased some individuals' concerns about climate change, it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the pope's credibility on climate change,” Li said.

Prior to the release of the encyclical, titled “Laudato Si′, Pew Research reported that 71 percent of American Catholics believed climate change exists, a figure on par with the general public. Catholics' views on the topic also broadly reflect the general partisan split along political lines among Americans.

Among Catholic Democrats, 62 percent believe in climate change and attribute it to human causes, while only 24 percent of Catholic Republicans feel the same. Conservatives are both more skeptical that anthropogenic climate change exists and less concerned with its adverse effects.

The pope's call for action raised the question whether a religious authority could influence public opinion on such a highly polarized topic. APPC researchers set out to examine the effect the encyclical had by asking respondents whether they had heard about the encyclical, whether they believed climate change is caused by humans, how serious a problem they thought climate change is and whether they thought there is a scientific consensus on climate change.

Data was obtained from 1,381 20-minute phone interviews conducted one week before the encyclical was released on June 18, 2015, and another 1,374 interviews conducted two weeks later.

According to the survey results, those who had heard of the encyclical were not generally more accepting of the science on climate change or concerned about the effects of climate change. Instead, the study found liberals who were aware of the encyclical were more concerned about climate change and perceived more risks than liberals who weren't aware of “Laudato Si′”. The opposite was true for conservatives.

Perceptions of the pope's credibility on climate change varied according to the own political views of the respondents. Encyclical-aware liberals said the pope was more credible on climate change than did liberals who said they were not aware of the encyclical, while encyclical-aware conservatives said the pope was less credible on climate change than conservatives who weren't aware of it. Although Pope Francis' message was expected to be especially influential among Catholics, Catholics' attitudes and beliefs about climate change remained strongly associated with their political views.

The results suggest that world views, political identities and group norms that lead conservative Catholics to doubt climate change may take priority over deference to religious authority when judging the reality and risks of this environmental phenomenon.

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