The Francis Effect How Pope Francis changed the conversation about global warming
November 2015 (George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication)
In June of 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical titled Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. This book-length letter was intended to draw Christians into a dialogue with one another, and with all of humanity, about the implications of climate change and other forms of environmental destruction. In the encyclical, Francis presented a strong moral call to action: people and nations should come together and take the actions necessary to protect the Earth – and thereby protect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people from climate change.
In September, Pope Francis visited the United States for five days to meet with President Obama, address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, address the General Assembly of the United Nations, and meet, talk, pray and hold Mass with ordinary Americans. During several of these events, he urged the nations of the world to come together to address climate change. His views were covered broadly in American news media.
Between the encyclical release and Pope's visit, the Catholic Climate Covenant and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops widely disseminated the message of Laudato Si'. They held two press conferences at the National Press Club, and five diocesan press events, which generated more than 3,000 news stories and more than 500 downloads of a free parish program.
Given the Pope’s stature as a global religious leader, and the large number of Catholic Americans, we decided to assess whether the Pope’s teachings have had an influence on Americans’, particularly Catholics’, understanding, opinions, and dialogue about climate change.
This report examines a large, representative cohort of American adults who were first surveyed in spring of 2015, and then again in early October – a within-subject study of changes in public responses. In the two surveys, we assessed the same respondents’ global warming beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, behaviors and policy preferences, and their views of Pope Francis – so that we could determine who, if anyone, had changed their opinions, and if so, in what ways.
The report focuses on change among American adults nationally, and within the three largest groups of American Christians – Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants, and born again/Evangelical Christians. We anticipated that any effect of the Pope’s teachings on global warming would be most evident among Catholics, and were therefore primarily interested in contrasting Catholics’ responses to those of Americans overall. The report also focuses on non-evangelical Protestants and born again/Evangelicals – but does not focus on changes among people of other faiths, or non-religious Americans, due to sample size limitations. Because of their relatively large proportions in the population, we were able to reliably assess the views of Protestants and Evangelicals, but not people of other faiths, or non-religious Americans.
In this report we conclude that, over the past six months, Americans – especially Catholic Americans – became more engaged in and concerned about global warming. Furthermore, our findings suggest that the Pope’s teachings about global warming contributed to an increase in public engagement on the issue, and influenced the conversation about global warming in America; we refer to this as The Francis Effect.
It is important to note that The Francis Effect may fade or grow over time. Indeed, although publication of an Encyclical is a significant event in the Catholic Church, the full impact of the Pope’s teachings may continue to unfold over time, especially if the Pope continues to speak on the topic, if Bishops, Cardinals and priests amplify the teachings in their dioceses, and if Catholics talk to each other and to non-Catholic friends about the issue.
Assignment to Religion Category
Assignment to the religion categories used in this report is based on responses to two survey questions: (1) What is your religion? (2) Would you describe yourself as “born again” or evangelical? All respondents who identified as Catholic in the first question were coded as “Catholic” for this report (n=222). Respondents who identified as Protestant or Baptist in item 1 but did not identify as born again or evangelical in the second question were coded as “Protestant (Non-Evangelical)” (n=171). Respondents who identified as Protestant, Baptist, Pentecostal, or Other Christian in the first question and also did identify as born again or evangelical in the second question were coded as “Evangelical” (n=225).
The total sample size (n=905) is too small to provide reliable estimates of the opinions of a number of other, smaller, religious groups in the U.S., including Mormons, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as others with no religious affiliation. For this reason, they are not analyzed in the report.
From Spring to Fall of 2015 (before the Pope’s encyclical to after his visit to the U.S.)…
Americans Developed a More Positive View of the Pope
• More Americans (+7 percentage points), especially Catholics (+13 points), have a very positive opinion of the Pope.
• Trust in the Pope as a source of information about global warming increased by among Americans overall (+11 points), and among Catholics (+6 points).
Global Warming Became a More Salient Issue
• More Americans (+4 points) and more Catholics (+10 points) say they now hear about global warming in the media at least once a month or more frequently.
• Almost half (45%) of all Americans, and over half of Catholics (56%) say they have seen, read or heard media coverage about the Pope’s views on global warming in the past few months.
• Awareness of the Pope’s encyclical increased among all Americans (+14 points) and among Catholics (+16 points).
• Nearly 1 in 10 Americans (9%) and nearly 2 in 10 Catholics (18%) said that the Pope’s views on global warming were discussed in their place of worship.
• Americans overall (+6 points), and Catholics (+5 points), become more likely to discuss global warming with their friends and family often or occasionally.
Many Americans Say the Pope’s Views on Global Warming Influenced Their Own Views
• Many Americans (17%) and Catholics (35%) say the Pope’s position on global warming has influenced their views about the issue.
• Of those Americans who say they've been influenced, half (50%) say the Pope’s position on global warming made them more concerned about global warming, while fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) say they became less concerned. Among Catholics, the proportions are 53 percent, and 8 percent, respectively.
Americans Became More Concerned About Global Warming
• More Americans overall (+4 points), and more Catholics (+8 points), had thought a lot or some about global warming.
• More Americans overall (+6 points), and more Catholics (+13 points), became very or extremely sure that global warming is happening. There was no change, however, in the number of Americans who believe human activity is causing global warming.
• More Americans overall and American Catholics think that people in developing countries (+15 and +17 points, respectively) and the world’s poor (+12 and +20 points, respectively) will be harmed by global warming a great deal or a moderate amount.
• More Americans (+9 points), and more Catholics (+13 points), think global warming will harm people in the United States a great deal or a moderate amount.
• More Americans overall, and more Catholics, have come to believe that Americans will be harmed by global warming sooner rather than later.
• More Americans (+8 points) and more Catholics (+11 points) have become worried about global warming.
• More Americans (+7 points) and more Catholics (+8 points) say that the issue of global warming has become very or extremely important to them personally.
• More Americans (+5 points) and more Catholics (+7 points) say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming.
More Americans Came to See Global Warming as a Moral Issue
• More Americans and more Catholics came to see global warming as a moral issue (+6 and +8 points, respectively) or a religious issue (+4 and +7 points, respectively).
• More Americans overall also came to see global warming as a social justice/fairness issue (+8 points), and a poverty issue (+5 points).
Support for an American Response to Global Warming May Have Increased, But Only Slightly
• More Americans (+7 points) feel that America should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.
• Slightly more Americans (+ 2 points) support funding research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, although fewer Americans (-3 points) support setting strict carbon dioxide emission limits on coal-fired power plants.
• Between spring and fall of 2015, Americans – especially Catholic Americans – have become modestly more engaged in and concerned about global warming. Our panel survey findings suggest that the Pope’s teachings about global warming contributed to greater public engagement in the issue.