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Yes, the Pope Can Change People’s Minds About Climate Change

Religious authorities can help to save the environment

Ajai Raj
Ajai Raj
Jan 30, 2017 · 5 min read

by AJAI RAJ

Despite the well-known story from the Book of Genesis where the serpent convinced Adam and Eve that God would be cool with running an oil pipeline through the Garden of Eden, climate change isn’t generally viewed as a religious issue.

But a new study examining the influence of Pope Francis on people’s views of climate change suggests that religious authorities might, in some cases, be better equipped to persuade people of the reality and urgency of climate change than scientists or liberal politicians.

Publishing in the journal Climatic Change, researchers conducted a survey of 1,212 adults in the United States, consisting of three questions:

  1. Do you consider climate change to be a moral or ethical issue?
  2. Do you feel personally responsible for contributing to the causes of climate change?
  3. Do you feel personally responsible for helping to reduce climate change?

The respondents were randomized to answer these questions either before or after answering a question assessing whether they were aware of Pope Francis’s views on climate change, along with a picture of the current Pontifex Maximus himself.

This was to test the effect of “priming,” a well-documented psychological effect in which brief exposure to information can influence the accessibility of related information, and have an effect on subsequent judgment, motivations and actions.

The idea was to see whether this pope-priming would influence how the respondents answered the questions, and to see whether prior awareness of the pope’s position on climate change— which is that destroying the garden is a sin— made one more likely to perceive climate change in moral terms.

As it turned out, the answer to both questions is yes.

While only 46 percent of respondents in the control group said that they view climate change in moral and ethical terms, that number rose to 51 percent for the pope-primed group. All of these figures were derived after controlling for demographic variables.

Interestingly, the priming had a much stronger effect on Republicans. Thirty-nine percent of Republicans answered yes to this question in the priming group, up from 30 percent in the control group. Pope-priming had only a modest effect on Democrats— a rise from 58 percent to 61 percent.

Priming also had an effect on how much personal responsibility people felt for climate change — 52 percent for the Pope-primed group versus 48 percent for the control group. When they looked just at Democrats, though, they observed a significantly larger difference — 64 percent versus 56 percent. The visage of the pontifex did not move Republicans, who held steady at 36 percent.

On the question of feeling personally responsible for reducing climate change, the researchers observed no difference between the groups as a whole. Pope-priming once again made a significant difference among Democrats (74 percent versus 67 percent), and a less notable difference among Republicans (53 percent versus 49 percent).

Finally, on the question of whether already being aware of the pope’s position on climate change increased the effects of the priming, the answer was a resounding yes. People who were already “highly aware” of the pope’s views were also more likely to respond to the priming on all three questions.

The effect was strongest on whether they viewed climate change as a moral issue (67 percent versus 53 percent), but was also pronounced on felt personal responsibility for climate change (66 percent versus 54 percent) and felt responsibility for reducing its effects (73 percent versus 63 percent).

Interestingly, awareness of the pope’s views was highest among atheists (30.2 percent), followed by Catholics (30 percent), and lower among Protestant and Evangelical Christians (19.1 percent).

Dr. Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Cornell University, who led the study, said that the findings were consistent with previous findings that public opinion has shifted towards viewing climate change as a moral issue since Pope Francis released Laudato Si, an encyclical on ecology, in 2015.

“If the pope’s stance on climate change has actually affected the public’s attitudes, then reminding the public of the pope’s stance should shift public opinion in the direction of the pope’s,” Schuldt said via email. “And that’s what we found.”

Per the point above about atheists and Catholics — and contrary to common sense — Schuldt said that religious affiliation didn’t have much of an effect on the results. It would seem that on this score — and I’m editorializing here, not quoting the good doctor — that liberal guilt is stronger than Catholic guilt is.

Schuldt said the findings suggest that when it comes to climate change, the messenger matters.

“So often climate change messages originate from partisan sources — for example, a politician such as Al Gore,” he said. “But in many ways, the pope transcends politics and is a highly visible and globally recognized moral figure.

“It’s possible that even skeptics are persuaded by his views, given his authority in the eyes of billions of people.”

However, Schuldt added that the findings may not signal a long-term change.

“Our findings show that a brief exposure to the pope’s opinions are capable of changing the public’s survey responses, but it’s less clear whether these changes reflect meaningful, long-lasting attitude change on the issue,” he said.

Still, for advocacy groups and others committing to galvanizing action on climate change, they may consider enlisting clerics, as well as scientists and politicians, as allies.

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Ajai Raj

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Ajai Raj

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