Guest essay by Eric Worrall
A new study “Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change” claims looking at a picture of Pope Francis is more likely to cause Republicans to view climate change as a moral issue.
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
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.
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.
Thinking about the pope did not increase the percentage of Republicans who felt personal responsibility for climate change, which stayed steady at 36 percent.
The abstract of the new study;
Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change
Jonathon P. Schuldt, Adam R. Pearson, Rainer Romero-Canyas, Dylan Larson-Konar
In his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis issued a moral appeal to the global community for swift action on climate change. However, social science research suggests a complex relationship between religious concepts and environmental attitudes, raising the question of what influence the pope’s position may have on public opinion regarding this polarizing issue. In a national probability survey experiment of U.S. adults (n = 1212), we find that brief exposure to Pope Francis influenced the climate-related beliefs of broad segments of the public: it increased perceptions of climate change as a moral issue for the overall sample (and among Republicans in particular) and increased felt personal responsibility for contributing to climate change and its mitigation (among Democrats). Moreover, prior awareness of the pope’s views on climate change mattered, such that those who indicated greater awareness of the pope’s position showed stronger treatment effects, consistent with a priming account of these effects. Results complement recent correlational findings and offer further evidence of the Vatican’s influence on climate change public opinion.
Unfortunately the full study is paywalled, but the statement in the press release that thinking about the pope did not increase feelings of personal responsibility for climate change is intriguing.
Looking at a picture of Pope Francis stimulates my concerns about climate morality; but I doubt my thoughts about the morality of Pope Francis’ climate posturing will lead to the outcome the study authors appear to want.