Over time, a funny thing happened to the perception of climate science in some countries: it just became yet another badge in the culture wars. Public opinion about what this field of science says is now mainly a reflection of which team you are on politically. While anyone trying to reach teams to communicate about climate change is likely to be left out, votes from inside a group can get a fairer hearing.
A major voice on climate change has been Pope Francis, who in 2015 released a letter (called an “encyclical”) titled Laudato so’ (or Blessed be you). The encyclical recognizes human-induced climate change as an unavoidable reality and views action as a moral imperative. Many hoped this would have an impact on Catholics who still doubted climate science.
A group of researchers under Texas Tech’s leadership Nan Li neatly planned a few before-and-after surveys to assess that heap of data. So what impact did the encyclical have actually have on American Catholics?
Many prominent “climate skeptics” and politicians demonstrated one possible response that lagged somewhat behind a sudden conversion: they stood their ground and criticized the pope’s statements. They argued that this was a political and economic issue rather than a moral or doctrinal one, making the pope perfectly capable of being fallible.
“The pope got bad advice” was a common refrain we heard when we attended the Heartland Institute conference for climate skeptics around that time. (Heartland even sent a group to Vatican City in hopes of re-educating Pope Francis. They were denied an audience.)
The researchers’ initial hypothesis was that this reaction would not be unusual. Most conservative Catholics would do something similar — reason that climate science wasn’t really in the pope’s wheelhouse and ignore the encyclical rather than embrace it. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, might find the encyclical persuasive because they had no 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 additional 700 people who had identified as Catholic in previous surveys. Those surveyed were asked questions about whether people are responsible for climate change, how concerned they were about its impact on the poor, the pope’s credibility on the subject and how much conservative or liberal media outlets they include.
Overall, the data revealed a pattern that should sound familiar if you’ve read about public divisions over climate change before. On the liberal end of the spectrum, Catholics who had heard of the encyclical were even more likely to answer that climate change was man-made and a serious problem, compared to those who were unaware of the encyclical. Conservative Catholics, on the other hand, were right fewer 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 knew about the encyclical. Any hope that the pope’s encyclical would ease the cultural divide was apparently misplaced.
Exactly the same pattern appeared in responses to the pope’s credibility on climate change. Liberal Catholics who were aware of the encyclical rated its 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 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 gave the pope much more credibility – close to the level of Catholic liberals. Non-Catholic, encyclical-conscious conservatives assigned slightly lower credibility (and assumed much lower opinion than Catholics).
A “no” for the pope
Not only has Pope Francis apparently failed to sway many conservative Catholics, but the data suggests that the attempt may even have backfired. “Pressured by the inconsistency between the pope’s views and those of their political allies,” the researchers write, “conservative Catholics devalued the pope’s credibility on climate change.”
However, it is possible that much of the increased polarization was not causes by the encyclical – as the researchers note. A small subset of Catholics who answered both the “before” and “after” surveys found the encyclical in between. They did not differ significantly on climate change. (Over there used to be a significant change in assessments of Pope Francis’s credibility on this.)
Rather than a “doubling down” response from climate skeptical Catholics, a simpler explanation has generally been seen in other studies. People who are attuned to politics or who score high on tests of numeracy or scientific knowledge tend to be the most polarized. In a perfectly rational world, the most informed segment of the population should come together to a similar understanding of reality.
In this world, however, often the opposite occurs. Information is used selectively and artfully to defend pre-existing positions – and the more information you have, the higher the walls go.
Those who follow the news closely – and perhaps have heard politicians and bloggers rationalize their disagreement with Pope Francis before – are also more likely heard about the encyclical. So the encyclical very likely fell on deaf ears in some ways.
Response to the Pope’s encyclical is another example of the power of reasoned reasoning in the human mind – the gymnastics we use to avoid changing our minds or engaging in uncomfortable conflicts. Your view on whether increasing greenhouse gas concentrations raises the planet’s temperature (which it does) is now a firm identity-defining position in the US. What chance does an ordinary pope have against that?
Climate change2016. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-016-1821-z (About DOIs).