The Pope and partisan polarisation

Catholicism and climate change in the USA: will the Pope’s intervention shift public opinion or further polarise a divided public?

Photo: Michael Swan, Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo: Michael Swan, Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

This week, the Head of the Catholic Church did something that legions of green activists routinely struggle to do: focus global media attention on climate change. In a Papal Encyclical stretching to 42,000 words, Pope Francis set out new doctrine on climate change, covering science, politics, economics and morality.

While warmly received by many political figures, and endorsed by eminent climate scientists as technically accurate, it predictably raised the hackles of some US Republicans – many of whom are Catholic themselves.

Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and others reacted angrily to the searing social and economic analyses contained within the Encyclical. So will the Pope’s intervention shift opinion in the US on climate change, or further polarise a notoriously divided public?

A new report on US public opinion by Anthony Leiserworitz and his team at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication claims that:

“The Pope’s message on climate change is likely to find receptive ears among Catholic Republicans and even conservative Catholic Republicans.”

However, the their own analyses suggest otherwise. While Catholic Republicans are slightly more likely (than non-Catholic Republicans) to agree that global warming is happening and to express concern about it, the numbers are not exactly compelling. Only 36% think global warming caused by human activities (vs 30% non-Catholic Republicans), and just over a quarter of Catholic Republicans don’t think it’s happening at all (27% vs 37% non-Catholic Republicans).

So, while Catholic Republicans are slightly more inclined towards caring about climate change than non-Catholic conservatives, it is political views that are still playing the dominant role – something which the Yale surveys have themselves endlessly documented.

This suggests that the views of Republican senators warning the Pope to stay out of climate debate and ‘leave the science to the scientists’ are probably shared by a majority of right-leaning Catholics in the US.

A quick glance at the language employed by Pope Francis shows why. This was not simply a turgid retelling of the science of climate change, or a meek meditation on the ‘risks of dangerous climate change’: this was a powerful and prescient call to arms, drawing as much on political passion as it did on scientific studies.

Adopting many of the most emotive tropes of the ‘climate justice’ movement (‘we have a grave social debt towards the poor’), and aiming squarely at economic inequality as both a  driver and consequence of environmental degradation, Pope Francis left no room for interpretation: solving climate change means fixing a broken economic system.

Already hailed as the ‘Pope of the poor’, the climate Encyclical will cement his position as a spokesperson for the global South, rather than a mouthpiece for the corporations and governments of the North. So no surprise it got up the nose of the Republicans, who – on climate change at least – seem to put politics before religion.

If the Encyclical is to have a more universal appeal among US Catholics, then it will need reinterpreting by Conservative Catholics. As COIN’s research in the UK and Europe has shown, there are ways of talking about climate change that are consistent with conservatism – but attacking the free-market is not one of them

The Pope’s intervention is a fantastic opportunity to get Catholics (and people of other faiths) all around the world talking about climate change. But in a deeply divided nation like the US, the story will need  to be owned and told by Catholic leaders and Priests  who represent the range of political opinion.

If it is not, then the same political differences that dictate public opinion on climate change will simply replicate themselves within Catholic communities – because even an intervention by an iconic and prestigious religious leader like the Pope is not immune from the powerful influence of partisan polarisation.