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Did The Pope Change Catholics’ Minds On Climate Change?

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A study out this week claims, based on survey data, that Pope Francis’s public statements on the reality of human-caused climate change aren’t doing much to change the minds of Catholics in the pews. The researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed Americans — Catholic and otherwise — before the pope’s encyclical on environmental stewardship and justice was published in June 2015. They did another survey two weeks later. The results suggest that, rather than shifting to meet the pope’s position, Catholic opinion became entrenched along political lines: Liberals who were aware of the encyclical became more certain that anthropogenic climate change was happening, and conservatives who heard the pope’s message became more convinced that it wasn’t.

But wait a second. Two weeks isn’t much time to read a 184-page missive, consider it, and come to a new conclusion. Especially given the fact that the encyclical wasn’t heavily preached by ground-level priests. By mid-July 2015, only 40 percent of U.S. Catholics had even heard about it. And there’s some reason to believe that, longer term, the pope’s writing (and his September 2015 visit to the United States) may have had more of an impact. For instance, researchers with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication surveyed Catholics in March 2015 and again that October. By that point, 56 percent of American Catholics had heard about the encyclical, and the percentage of Catholics who were very or extremely sure climate change is happening went up by 13 points. (The percentage of Catholics who believed climate change would harm the poor and people in developing countries — which was one of the concerns the pope mentioned in message — grew even more.) The Yale survey didn’t break down Catholics by their political leanings in its results, but the authors noted that the 905 Catholics who answered both the spring and fall surveys tended to be older, more Republican, and less sure climate change was happening than those who dropped out after spring.

So what do we know for sure about Catholics and climate change? Research shows that Catholics are already on board with climate concerns at about the same rate as Americans overall. And most nonwhite Catholics were already convinced. A 2014 Pew survey found that Hispanic Catholics were the American demographic most likely to agree that anthropogenic climate change was happening. And a 2015 PRRI survey found that 86 percent of nonwhite Catholics supported increased government action on climate change.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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