Pope Francis is in the news again for his views on climate change.
We’ve known for a while that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church takes the threat seriously. He hosted a summit at the Vatican designed to bolster support for climate action, and recently finished up an encyclical specifically addressing the issue. His latest foray into the issue has drawn significant fire from conservative groups and conservative Catholics, who insist that Francis is being “misled” by the IPCC and isn’t “getting the whole picture.” The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, is even trying to set up a visit with the Pope in Rome to change the Pope’s mind on climate change.
But what, if any, effect will Francis’ efforts have on the climate conversation? Can his words have an impact before the rapidly-approaching Paris 2015 climate conference?
To answer these questions, it’s first important to acknowledge that Catholics – like every other group – are not a monolith. American Catholics are dispersed across the political spectrum, although they tend to lean conservative. The Pew Religion & Public Life Project reports that 36 percent of Catholics identify as conservative and 38 percent identify as moderate. Only 18 percent identify as liberal. Still, Catholics in general believe that we should be doing more to combat climate change. Although only 24 percent of Catholics believe that climate change is the most important environmental threat facing society right now, about two-thirds of them think we should deal with the issue now to prevent harm in the future. It should be noted, too, that there are a variety of amazing Catholic groups doing wonderful work for the environment and for the climate.
So Catholics – like other religious groups – are currently mixed on the climate issue. What does this mean for Francis’ message? There are two obvious mechanisms by which the Pope’s words could shift the debate on climate change, and a third that’s slightly more subtle.
First and foremost, by situating the climate debate in the context of Christian faith, the Pope is leveraging his clout as the leader of a major faith to encourage acceptance of climate science. Many commentators have noted the importance of the Pope’s discussion of climate change as a moral challenge that all people have a duty to address. These types of comments have the potential to mobilize Catholics on the climate issue as they follow the Holy Father’s lead.
On a related note, a full 30 percent of the American legislature is Catholic, as are several confirmed and potential Republican presidential candidates: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum. Francis’ message may put pressure on these politicians to adopt a more moderate approach to the climate question. At the least, it will create some interesting questions for the upcoming presidential primaries and Congressional races. Let’s also not forget that the Pope is scheduled to speak before Congress this fall. There is no guarantee that his speech will include a mention of climate change, but if he does press the issue it is bound to create some uncomfortable moments for Catholic climate deniers.
The third way Francis’ climate message could affect the American climate conversation may be the most interesting.
Cultural cognition theory is a major theoretical perspective used by social scientists to discuss the ways in which people’s personal values can impact their opinion on a variety of social issues, including climate change. For instance, noted cultural cognition scholar Dan Kahan gives an example of a barber in South Carolina who doesn’t sign a climate change petition for fear of alienating his customers and the rest of his community, which would hurt his ability to make a living.
Cultural cognition theorists argue that when it comes to contested political issues, people don’t make judgments based on the facts at hand. Instead, they consider whether taking a position on an issue would put them at odds with their family, friends and community or otherwise make these groups look bad. No one wants to believe that they are harming others, after all, and no one wants to believe things that will set them apart from their communities.
Kahan writes, “For members of the public, being right or wrong about climate-change science will have no impact. Nothing they do as individual consumers or as individual voters will meaningfully affect the risks posed by climate change. Yet the impact of taking a position that conflicts with their cultural group could be disastrous.”
This means that by openly speaking up about the climate and insisting that good Catholics and good Christians should care about the environment, Francis is sending a powerful message. If the message gains momentum, some – though certainly not all – Catholics could find themselves in a situation where their anti-climate science beliefs are no longer compatible with the beliefs of their communities. Instead of climate denial being a winning position for people in conservative Catholic communities, it could become a liability.
It is even possible that these changes could be the precursor to a larger shift in which climate denial is no longer seen as the hallmark of a good conservative. Both business leaders and corporations are increasingly recognizing the dangerous implications climate change has for the economy. Although this is perhaps not yet a majority opinion, conservatives – and conservative political candidates – could soon find themselves pressured from both religious leaders and their business base to act on the climate. These social pressures would make it increasingly difficult for people to hold climate denier viewpoints without risking condemnation from their communities.
America may be on the cusp of a real breakthrough in its public climate change conversation. If this turns out to be the case, we can tip our hats to Pope Francis for his role in the change.