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Is the pope changing minds on climate change? Survey says: meh.

"Oh, you thought I could change Republican minds? Hilarious!"
"Oh, you thought I could change Republican minds? Hilarious!"
(Shutterstock)

Pope Francis's entry into the contentious debate over climate change was welcomed by many climate hawks as a "gamechanger." For months, people whose own minds were not changed by the pope's encyclical, Laudato Si, have been confidently claiming that many other people's will be. I've yet to actually hear from, or even hear about, an actual human being whose mind was thus changed.

I was discussing this on Twitter when, lo and behold, a fellow from the organization Faith In Public Life overheard and sent me a recent survey they did on just this question — or rather, on the broader question of how the pope is influencing American Catholics.

A poll shows that US Catholics dig Francis

It is obviously too early to guess at the long-term effects of the pope's leadership; it will take time for his shift in emphasis to work its way down into the parishes and schools where Catholic doctrine is conveyed. But this survey — with design help from the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, conducted by YouGov — offers some interesting hints.

Broadly, it finds that American Catholics approve of the pope and the direction he's taking the church. Though there is some partisan difference, the number is pretty high across the board:

pope approval

(Faith in Public Life)

There are some interesting specific results (Latino Catholics love Francis's talk about the government's role in addressing poverty and homelessness), but naturally what I really want to hear about is climate change.

But the same poll shows his climate change message isn't doing much

One of the survey experiments was set up like this: half the participants read a message about the urgency of climate change from "climate scientists"; the other half read a similar message from Pope Francis. The idea was to run this on various groups of Catholics to find out which, if any, would be uniquely moved by the pope's message.

Here's the relevant result:

Catholic Republicans who read about Laudato Si were more likely to agree that human activities are responsible for climate change (37%) than those who received the alternative message (27%), and to agree that humans have a moral duty [to protect the environment] (77%) than those who read the story featuring generic climate experts (70%).

That seems like a pretty modest effect. But okay, it's movement. Then again, there's this:

It is worth noting that differences were more modest (and statistically insignificant) when it came to agreeing that the U.S. government needs to take action: 33% among those who read about Laudato Si, and 30% among those who read the alternative message.

Sigh.

FPL spins this as the pope changing the conversation, but that seems like a wild over-interpretation of some pretty sketchy, short-term data. The pope nudged a few conservatives to think climate might be a problem, which doesn't threaten any of their core tribal commitments. But when it comes to climate requiring a government ... sorry, Big Government solution, which very much is a core tribal commitment, there was no movement at all.

Partisanship is stronger than religion in America

I'm afraid this just plays to my cynicism. My thesis is pretty simple: in the US today, partisanship is a stronger force than religion. The latter is shaped to fit the former, not the other way around.

To illustrate the point, I give you Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, who is a "proud Catholic" but is boycotting the pope's address to Congress:

Media reports indicate His Holiness instead intends to focus the brunt of his speech on climate change--a climate that has been changing since first created in Genesis. More troubling is the fact that this climate change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into "climate justice" and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies. If the Pope stuck to standard Christian theology, I would be the first in line. If the Pope spoke out with moral authority against violent Islam, I would be there cheering him on. If the Pope urged the Western nations to rescue persecuted Christians in the Middle East, I would back him wholeheartedly. But when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.

To paraphrase: if the pope wants to reinforce my pre-existing ideological commitments, I'll listen to him; if he wants to challenge them, I'll ignore him.

That is basically the attitude toward the pope I expected across the American right and nothing I've seen yet convinces me otherwise.

Again: it's probably unfair to judge the pope's shift on climate change by whether it instantly changes the mind of opponents or transforms politics. Insofar as the "game" is current politics and the international climate talks coming up in Paris, no, the pope will not change the game.

Over the longer term? As the pope's teachings work their way through churches and schools across the world? Maybe. We'll see. But for now, game ain't changed.

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Update

Aaaand a guy at the Heartland Institute just said that Pope Francis is smuggling pagan nature-worship back into the church. So there's that.