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The pope tried to convince skeptical US Catholics that climate change is real. Here’s why he failed.

Pope Francis
Reaching out to old conservative white men.
(Franco Origlia/Getty)

There was much hue and cry among climate hawks in 2015 when Pope Francis issued his "Laudato Si," an impassioned, 184-page statement decrying humankind’s ill treatment of the Earth. In particular, it framed global warming as a challenge to the religious conscience.

Climate campaigners greeted the encyclical as a "game-changer" that would crack the conservative wall of denial.

Surveys at the time showed that the pope’s message did not, alas, do much to shift the views of American Catholics on climate change. But papal enthusiasts counseled patience. Give it time to sink in, they said. Look at little deeper.

Now another, more thorough investigation of the pope’s climate influence has been done by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. (It was just released in the journal Climatic Change.) After more than a thousand 20-minute phone interviews with Catholics across the country, both before and after its release, influence of "Laudato Si" has become clearer.

And it turns out the initial surveys were right. It didn’t change many minds.

Partisanship trumps religion in the US

The Annenberg researchers spend a lot of words trying to explain this, but it’s not that complicated: Partisanship is more powerful than religion in the US. Or as the authors put it, "the worldviews, political identities, and group norms that lead conservative Catholics to deny climate change override their deference to religious authority when judging the reality and risks of this phenomenon."

Partisanship in America has grown much deeper than differences over policy positions or ideology. It is about core issues of identity and tribe. If conservative Catholics are forced to choose between their sociocultural tribes and a new pope, it seems they will choose the former.

pope francis
"I can’t even with you people…"

It makes sense. Cognitively and emotionally, it is much easier to slot the pope into the category liberal — those who can be safely ignored — than it is to risk falling out of sync with the people and communities you care about.

Sure enough, people’s assessment of the pope’s credibility on climate varied depending on how much he reaffirmed their existing worldviews. From the study’s press release:

Encyclical-aware liberals said the Pope was more credible on climate change than did liberals who were not aware of the encyclical, while encyclical-aware conservatives said the Pope was less credible on climate change than conservatives who weren't aware of it.

Attitudes toward climate change appear to be fixed, while attitudes toward the pope are shallow and changeable.

Again, this shouldn’t be surprising. Reverence toward, and deference to, the pope simply isn’t a big feature of US Catholic life these days. It’s not a core part of conservative Catholics’ identity, whereas conservatism is — and surveys consistently show that climate change skepticism is, especially among politically engaged conservatives, a bedrock position.

Of all the issues surveyed by America pollsters, climate change is consistently among the most polarized. According to Pew, 62 percent of Catholic Democrats believe in anthropogenic climate change; 24 percent of Catholic Republicans do.

Other surveys have found the same thing: Hardcore climate denial is most concentrated among conservative older white men in the South — in other words, among the committed conservative base. In fact, it is only among conservative Republicans that a majority reject any action on climate. This is from a Yale survey earlier this year:

A poll showing Americans’ willingness to support a presidential candidate who strongly supports climate action. YPCCC

In a very real way, climate skepticism is the price of entry into the conservative tribe.

Incidentally, the very same explanation holds in regard to the much-remarked fact that conservative Christian evangelical voters are sticking with Donald Trump in this election (with a few exceptions). They have decided that the personal moral character of a political candidate doesn’t matter so much after all.

This, too, was entirely predictable. Conservative evangelicals view themselves (accurately!) as involved in a culture war, a conflict over the fundamental nature and direction of the country. Fighting that war is core to their identity. Abandoning it, even temporarily, based on concerns about a particular candidate’s moral rectitude, means risking a whole rich web of practices, traditions, and social ties. It is much, much easier to make accommodations for the candidate.

Partisan polarization is the defining feature of American life today. It has virtually subsumed all other considerations — it is stronger than education, stronger than religion, stronger than principles or ideology.

And climate change has been caught up in that partisanship. It will take more than the pope to extract it.

A visual tour of the world's CO2 emissions

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