Pope Francis and Re-Framing the Discussion on Climate Change

 Jul 20, 2015    by Zachary Schuster

 The biggest climate change news of 2015 has come from a rather unlikely source: The Vatican of Rome. On June 18th, 2015, Pope Francis released his first encyclical, or papal letter, entitled "Laudato si' on Care for Our Common Home." The encyclical combines Catholic tradition, Christian scripture, and climate science to make a case for the moral imperative of addressing climate change and other environmental issues such as pollution and water scarcity.

One my colleagues has already written an excellent take on the content of the encyclical here. Here, I would like to discuss the state of Catholic perspectives on climate change and the potential for Laudato si’ to impact the discussion on climate change in the United States. 

Catholics and Climate Change

While there has been a lot of excitement about Laudato si’ among the environmental community I think it is worthwhile to ask the question "Will anyone heed Pope Francis's words?" Both Pew Research and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication have recently done polling of Christian and Catholic opinions about climate change and the environment that serve as a useful guide.

(I should note that I was pointed to the Pew work by Katherine Hayhoe, a Climate Science professor from Texas Tech, who takes an Evangelical Christian perspective toward Pope Francis's encyclical in an excellent blog post of her own).

The Yale study found that Catholics are slightly more likely to acknowledge that climate change is occurring than members of other Christian denominations and the American public at large:

Yale Climate Project

And they are basically identical to the average American when it comes to their understanding of the scientific community's position on the human influence on climate change:

Yale Climate Project

These data (and others in the study by Yale show that Catholics are kind of a bell weather for the average American when it comes to views on climate change). However, the Pew Research study approaches the question of Catholics' beliefs about climate change from a different perspective. Their results are broken down by political affiliation, and what they found also mirrors what I previously wrote about; political affiliation is the number one driver of a person's perspective on climate change.

The sum of these polling data show that Catholics are not a monolithic bloc when it comes to climate change perspectives, and just like with the general American population, a Catholic's political affiliation is the number one predictor of their views on climate change and climate science. Based on what we know about the effect of the partisan divide on climate action in the United States, I think it's premature to conclude anything about the effect that Laudato si' will have on the American Catholic perception of climate change.


Despite the ambiguity of Catholics' beliefs about the environment, Laudato si' is anything but ambiguous on how Catholics should care for "Our Common Home." In it, Pope Francis makes a moral case for addressing climate change rooted in the Church's history of social justice, especially as it pertains to caring for the poor. In doing so, Laudato si' highlights the importance that values and framing play in the decision making process.  

When I started my PhD, I was vaguely interested in studying the role that science plays in environmental policymaking. At that time, I figured that the solution to better policy was "more" and "better" science. But as I have read the literature on environmental decision making, it has become clear that values are, arguably, the most important part of any decision process.

Values are the things – ideas, relationships, obligations – that a person or group of people believe are important. Framing is the construction of “interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.” One of the challenges with understanding the role that values and framing play in decision processes is that they are often downplayed or covered up in an effort to be “impartial.”   

Right now, the public debate over climate change is largely centered on acceptance or non-acceptance of climate science. However, as the linked op-ed points out, the solution to the climate change issue is not a technocratic solution dictated by climate models or impact studies. Addressing climate change is an incredibly complex issue that requires decisions to be made at many different levels and in many different policy venues. Framing climate change as an issue of scientific information is not working, and the literature on science and policy provides a good insight as to why.

Environmental management decisions are choices between competing alternatives - list or do not a water body as impaired, regulate or do not regulate a pollutant, etc. The Gregory et al. (2006) paper states that "Environmental risk management issues, at their core, are problems whose consequences involve multiple dimensions of value. These dimensions typically include human and environmental health, economic effects, and social or community impacts ...   Science itself provides no framework for making these values-based trade-offs."

As Andy Revkin of the DotEarth blog put it more succinctly, "Scientific knowledge reveals options. Values determine choices." 

A failure to understand that values are how trade-offs are ultimately decided can lead to fractured discourse on important issues. The Sarewitz (2004) paper provides an interesting discussion of how an over-reliance on scientific information in a decision process can lead to controversy and discord. In arenas such as the climate debate, "for a given value-based position in an environmental controversy, it is often possible to compile a supporting set of scientifically legitimated facts."

Taken further, conflating scientific information with values leads to a disingenuous discussion where competing scientific “facts” are substituted for what the argument is ultimately about: values.  

I think that it is fair to conclude based on the research that I discussed in my previous post that the debate over climate change in the United States is at a similar standstill. With the certainty of the climate science in each subsequent IPCC Report increasing, the American population has just become more entrenched in beliefs about climate change formed largely by political affiliation.

And yet, as the work of the Yale Project on Climate Change showed, a majority of Americans express a support for policies that would ostensibly indicate that they are concerned about the human health and environmental impacts of climate change. This would seemingly indicate that there is an opening for a case to be made to the American public for action on climate change based on values other than partisan identity (partisan identity is also a value).

Re-Framing the Climate Change Debates

In Laudato si', Pope Francis seems to grasp that the discussion about climate change should be about values and the actions they compel and not about belief in scientific information. Although his text does include a fairly in depth discussion of the science of climate change (Pope Francis does have a degree in Chemistry), its main focus is making a values-based moral case for why Catholics (and members of all faiths) should re-think the way that they relate to the environment:   

An excerpt from Pope’s letter:

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout   our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

Thus far during his papacy, Pope Francis has made it clear that he possesses a great deal of wisdom. In making his case for action on climate change in terms of a moral obligation to care for the poor and the afflicted, I think one could conclude that Pope Francis is purposely seeking to reframe the discussion around the potential human tragedies of climate change and our obligation to mitigate those tragedies.

The question that remains is if Pope Francis’s reframing of the message will be successful. As the research cited in the first section shows, there is a strong partisan divide even within the Catholic Church that his message will need to break through.

There are signs, however, that the United State Catholic Church is taking his message seriously and is going to take action related to the encyclical. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops have taken the Pope’s encyclical as their "marching orders", holding a briefing on Capitol Hill and producing a discussion guide for parish priests and a bulletin insert for Sunday church bulletins. 

Likewise, there are parish priests who grasp the importance of heeding the Pope’s message while also grasping the partisan divide that exists around the issue of climate change:

Whitney, like most priests I spoke with, rejected the partisan politics attached to the climate issue. “If you actually read what the pope is saying, some of these values are incredibly conservative,” he said. “The true conservative tradition is not excessive consumption—it’s the golden rule and taking care of each other.”

After decades of focusing on issues of marriage and abortion, the pope’s reframing of the Catholic position on the environment as a “life issue” was smart, especially for progressive priests in conservative parts of the country, said Michael Mulvany, the pastor at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Lawrence, Kansas. James Conley, bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, agreed. “Catholics can’t be bound to any political party—we have to follow the dictates of truth on every issue,” Conley said in an email. 

In a way, these priests are demonstrating a type of framing within the framing for their Catholic audiences. The issue of “life” is very important to conservative Catholics (who are likely reject climate change for partisan reasons), so re-framing the obligation to act on climate change is an attempt to reframe what is viewed as a “liberal” issue as one that also speaks to the values that conservative Catholics hold.

It will be interesting to see how the Pope’s encyclical ends up influencing the debate around climate change in the United States and across the world. I think that he has made a wise (and well-informed by social science) decision to seek to reframe the debate around climate change to one of our obligation to care for one another, and it’s clear that there are Catholic priests who understand that they will need to reach their conservative parishioners, but at the same time, polling data and a general observation of the lack of climate action in the United States provide ample reason to be skeptical as well.

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