Pope’s message on climate change trumped by party affiliations in US

Scott K. Johnson
Over time, a funny thing happened to the perception of climate science in some countries: it became just another badge in the culture wars. Public opinion on what this field of science says is now primarily a reflection of which team you’re on politically. While anyone trying to reach across teams to communicate about climate change is likely to be discounted as a result, voices from within a group can get a fairer hearing.
One significant voice about climate change has been Pope Francis, who released a letter (called an “encyclical”) in 2015 titled Laudato si’ (or Praise be to you). The encyclical acknowledges human-caused climate change as an unavoidable reality and frames action as a moral imperative. Many hoped that this might have an impact among Catholics who still doubted climate science.
A group of researchers led by Texas Tech’s Nan Li neatly planned out a pair of before-and-after surveys to assess those hopes with data. So what impact did the encyclical actually have on American Catholics?
Many prominent climate “skeptics” and politicians demonstrated one possible response that fell somewhat short of sudden conversion—they stuck to their guns and criticized the pope’s statements. They argued that this was a political and economic issue rather than a moral or doctrinal one, leaving the pope perfectly capable of being fallible.
“The pope got bad advice” was a common refrain we heard when we visited the Heartland Institute’s conference for climate “skeptics” around that time. (Heartland even sent a group to the Vatican City in the hopes of re-educating Pope Francis. They were not granted an audience.)
The researchers’ initial hypothesis was that this reaction wouldn’t be unusual. Most conservative Catholics would do something similar—reason that climate science wasn’t really in the pontiff’s wheelhouse and disregard the encyclical rather than embrace it. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, might find the encyclical persuasive because they didn’t have cultural priors pulling them in the opposite direction.
Between mid-June (just before the encyclical was published) and early July, the researchers surveyed more than 2,700 Americans—including an extra 700 people who had identified themselves as Catholic in previous surveys. Those surveyed were asked questions about whether humans are responsible for climate change, how concerned they were about its impact on the poor, the pope’s credibility on the topic, and how much conservative or liberal media they take in.
Altogether, the data revealed a pattern that should sound familiar if you’ve read about the public divide on climate change before. At the liberal end of the spectrum, Catholics who had heard about the encyclical were even more likely to answer that climate change was human-caused and a serious problem compared to those who were unaware of the encyclical. Conservative Catholics, on the other hand, were even less convinced of climate change if they knew about the encyclical.
That is, opinions were polarized along ideological lines, but even more polarized among people who were aware of the encyclical. Any hopes that the pope’s encyclical would soften the cultural divide were apparently misplaced.
The exact same pattern appeared in the answers about the pope’s credibility on climate change. Liberal Catholics who knew about the encyclical rated his credibility even higher, while conservative Catholics rated it even lower.
The pattern of polarization was almost identical among non-Catholics. The only real difference was in opinions about the pope’s credibility. Among those unaware of the encyclical, there was a much smaller difference between liberals and conservatives. But non-Catholic liberals who knew about the encyclical assigned much more credibility to the pope—close to the level of Catholic liberals. Non-Catholic, encyclical-aware conservatives assigned a slightly lower credibility (and started from a much lower opinion than Catholics).

A “nope” for the pope

Not only did Pope Francis apparently fail to sway many conservative Catholics, but the data suggests the effort may have even backfired. “Cross-pressured by the inconsistency between the pontiff’s views and those of their political allies,” the researchers write, “conservative Catholics devalued the pope’s credibility on climate change.”
However, it’s possible that much of the increased polarization wasn’t caused by the encyclical at all—as the researchers note. A small subset of Catholics that answered both the “before” and the “after” surveys discovered the encyclical in between. They had no significant difference in opinions on climate change. (There was a significant change in assessments of Pope Francis’ credibility about it, though.)
Instead of a “doubling down” response by climate-skeptical Catholics, a simpler explanation has generally been seen in other studies. People who are tuned in to politics or who score highly on tests of numeracy or science knowledge tend to be the most polarized. In a perfectly rational world, the most-informed segment of the population should converge on a similar understanding of reality.
In this world, however, the opposite frequently occurs. Information is selectively and artfully employed to defend pre-existing positions—and the more information you have, the higher the walls go.
Those who follow the news closely—and are perhaps more likely to hear politicians and bloggers rationalizing their disagreement with Pope Francis—are also more likely to have heard about the encyclical. So the encyclical was, in some ways, most likely to fall upon the deafest of ears.
Reaction to the pontiff’s encyclical is another example of the power of motivated reasoning in the human mind—the gymnastics we employ to avoid changing our minds or facing uncomfortable conflicts. Your opinion on whether increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases raises the planet’s temperature (which it does) is now firmly an identity-defining position in the US. What chance does a mere pontiff have against that?
Climatic Change, 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-016-1821-z  (About DOIs).
Pope’s message on climate change trumped by party affiliations in US Reviewed by Bizpodia on 20:52 Rating: 5

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