New Study: Pope Francis' Climate Change Letter Hurt His Credibility

When Pope Francis released his climate change encyclical "Laudato Si" in June 2015, UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres declared that it would "have a major impact." A new study by Texas Tech University suggests otherwise.

Indeed, among conservative Catholics, there is evidence to suggest the letter damaged the Pontiff's credibility. "The conservative Catholics who are cross-pressured by the inconsistency between the viewpoints of their political allies and their religious authority would tend to devalue the pope's credibility on this issue in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they experience," Nan Li, first author of the research, told The Guardian.

Li added that "the pope and his papal letter failed to rally any broad support behind climate change among the US Catholics and non-Catholics."

Research before the Pope's letter found that 68 percent of Americans and 71 percent of American Catholics believed that the Earth was warming. Smaller percentages agreed this change was caused by human activity (45 percent of Americans, 47 percent of Catholics), and that it was a serious problem (46 percent of Americans, 48 percent of Catholics). On each issue, more Democrats agreed with the alarmist position than Republicans.

In a survey of 2,755 Americans, including more than 700 Catholics, researchers found that only 22.5 percent of respondents had heard of the pope's message or his plans for the letter. In keeping with the original trend, the team found that Americans who identified as politically liberal, whether Catholic or not, were more likely to take the alarmist positions than those who identified as conservative.

Among those who knew about the pope's letter, there was no noticeable shift toward the pope's perspective that unchecked climate change will produce an "unprecedented destruction of ecosystems." Rather, awareness of the pope's letter was linked to more polarization — both for and against his views.

Conservatives — both Catholic and non-Catholic — who knew about the letter were less likely to be concerned about climate change and its alleged risk to the poor, compared to those who did not know about it. The exact opposite trend emerged among liberals: awareness of the letter was linked to a firmer belief and concern about this issue.

Researchers admitted it was not clear if the increased polarization was due to hearing about the encyclical or if it just happened to be the more politically engaged people who were more likely to hear about it in the first place.

The one clear effect of the letter proved to be negative — a dip in the pope's credibility among conservatives. "For people who are most conservative, the Catholics who are aware of the encyclical give the pope 0.5 less than Catholics who aren't aware of the encyclical on a one to five scale."

"In sum, while [the] pope's environmental call may have increased some individuals' concerns about climate change, it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the pope's credibility on climate change," the report concluded.

Next Page: Does this mean conservative Catholics dismiss religious authority just to uphold their political views?