Even the Pope Has Difficulty Convincing People of Climate Change

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Nan Li, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Background: Although a scientific consensus exists on the reality of anthropogenic climate change, laypeople are less convinced. This scientific issue has become a political issue, with liberals being more likely to believe in climate change and conservatives being less likely. Recently, Pope Francis published an encyclical, an official church document, accepting the scientific consensus on climate change and stating a moral obligation to preserve the environment. Because of the Pope’s credibility as a moral authority, this document might persuade conservatives and Catholics to change their views on climate change. However, the encyclical was criticized by some conservative-leaning media outlets which denigrated the pope’s credibility on climate change in particular and on science more generally. This study examined how the encyclical influenced public opinion on climate change. We studied how the mediated communication environment shapes individuals’ interpretation of the Pope’s messages and their opinions on climate change. Methods: Two nationally representative phone surveys were conducted, one occurring a week before the encyclical release and the other occurring two weeks after release. The total sample includes 2755 adults and an oversample of Catholics. Respondents were asked about their opinions on climate change and the Pope, as well as their use of various media and demographics. The data was analyzed by multiple regression, adjusting for demographics and party affiliation while examining the main and interactive effects of encyclical awareness, political ideology, and conservative media use.  Results: Liberals were more convinced of, and concerned about, climate change than were conservatives. Among those had heard of the encyclical, differences between liberals and conservatives were exaggerated. Catholics and non-Catholics did not differ in their beliefs. Additionally, FOX viewers who had heard about the encyclical were more likely to deny climate change and to extend the Pope less credibility than those who have not heard about it. Conclusion: Changing the discussion on climate change can be challenging even for a high-profile religious leader with conservative appeal. Laypeople adjust their perceptions of the Pope’s credibility on climate change according to how well it matches their ideology. Furthermore, exposure to conservative media facilitates denigration of the Pope’s credibility on climate change and rejection of climate change beliefs.