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Another Francis Effect? New Research Shows the Pope Is Shifting U.S. Opinion on Climate Change

Pope Francis visits U.S. Congress.

Pope Francis is shifting Americans views on climate change, according to new research co-authored by Pomona College Psychology Professor Adam Pearson, and the pontiff may offer a path to less political polarization on the issue.

In a co-authored paper, “Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate,” published in Climatic Change, Pearson and colleagues Jonathon P. Schuldt of Cornell University, Rainer Romero-Canyas and Dylan Larson-Konar of the Environmental Defense Fund, tested whether brief exposure to Pope Francis would influence beliefs about climate change among a U.S. audience.

“When respondents were reminded of the pope’s position on climate change before being asked about their personal views, they were more likely to view it as a moral issue,” says Pearson.

Pearson says he and colleagues were inspired by opinion polls that suggested that public concern about climate change increased after Pope Francis’ U.S. tour in September 2015. They wanted to find out if this was simply due to increased media attention devoted to climate change surrounding the pope’s visit or an influence of the pope’s views on climate change.

Their study surveyed 1,212 U.S. adults online 11 months after the Vatican’s June 2015 release of the pope’s encyclical making the case that society has a moral obligation to act on climate change, and seven months after his U.S. visit, during which he spoke out on the issue, drawing widespread press coverage.

Respondents were asked a series of questions adapted from prior studies assessing perceptions of climate change as a moral issue and feelings of personal responsibility for both causing and mitigating climate change.

“It was surprising to us to see [in the study] that a greater percentage of the public was seeing climate change a moral issue. This held up not just for Catholics, but across the U.S. public,” says Pearson.

The questions were: Do you consider climate change to be a moral or ethical issue? Do you feel personally responsible for contributing to the causes of climate change? Do you feel personally responsible for helping to reduce climate change?

In their survey, half of the respondents answered the questions after a prompt that noted the pope’s views on the issue and included an image of the pontiff (the other half, a control group, answered these questions before the prompt). Results showed that a greater percentage of those exposed to the pope’s position viewed climate change as a moral issue, and particularly if they indicated some familiarity with the pope’s stance.

In addition, the data showed that the pope prime exerted a stronger effect on the moral beliefs of Republicans. However, when it came to feelings of personal responsibility, Democrats, but not Republicans, were influenced by the pope’s position.

“The different effects of exposure to Pope Francis that we observed across Republicans and Democrats could, in part, reflect different beliefs that partisans typically hold about climate change. For example, polling consistently shows that Republicans are less likely than Democrats to report believing that global warming is caused by human activity,” says Schuldt.

He adds, “Given this, it may be difficult for a subtle treatment such as this to increase feelings of personal responsibility among Republicans, because to do so involves acknowledging that humans can, in fact, alter the climate. To report that climate change is a moral issue, in contrast, does not require acknowledging the anthropogenic nature of the problem.”

The results, says Pearson, are important as the issue of climate change continues to become increasingly polarized in the U.S.

“One of the big questions is how do you depoliticize a problem like climate change? There are many routes to doing that, from education campaigns by environmental groups to politicians taking up the issue, and while that can increase attention to the problem, it can also polarize it further,” says Pearson.

“Unlike politicians, the pope has a moral authority that can transcend political boundaries and bring attention to the ethical consequences of failing to act.”

Can he continue to represent a trusted moral leader on the issue of climate change? And for the U.S. public, a highly polarized public? And can this translate to action?  These are critical questions for future research.”

Science and religion are often seen as in conflict. However, religious leaders, Pearson adds, can also be a conduit to greater understanding and depolarization for the issue of climate change.