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Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change

An Erratum to this article was published on 13 February 2017


In his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis issued a moral appeal to the global community for swift action on climate change. However, social science research suggests a complex relationship between religious concepts and environmental attitudes, raising the question of what influence the pope’s position may have on public opinion regarding this polarizing issue. In a national probability survey experiment of U.S. adults (n = 1212), we find that brief exposure to Pope Francis influenced the climate-related beliefs of broad segments of the public: it increased perceptions of climate change as a moral issue for the overall sample (and among Republicans in particular) and increased felt personal responsibility for contributing to climate change and its mitigation (among Democrats). Moreover, prior awareness of the pope’s views on climate change mattered, such that those who indicated greater awareness of the pope’s position showed stronger treatment effects, consistent with a priming account of these effects. Results complement recent correlational findings and offer further evidence of the Vatican’s influence on climate change public opinion.

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  1. Complementing previous findings (see Leiserowitz and Akerlof 2010; Schuldt and Pearson 2016), those identifying with a racial or ethnic minority group were more likely than Whites to endorse each of the three climate belief items: 53.1 vs. 46.4% for moral belief, 53.9 vs. 48.0% for causal responsibility, and 69.8 vs. 59.0% for mitigation responsibility, respectively. All experimental effects remain when race/ethnicity (Whites vs. non-Whites) is included as a covariate in the regression models.

  2. Overall, the awareness measure was distributed as “nothing at all” (43.9%), “a slight amount” (29.2%), “a moderate amount” (18.4%), “a large amount” (5.9%), and “an extreme amount” (1.5%) (2.6% missing data). Perhaps unsurprisingly, awareness was greater among Democrats (29.0%) than Republicans (22.6%) (X 2(1126) = 5.88, p = .02). Moreover, awareness was greater among Catholics (30.0%) and Atheists (30.2%) than Evangelical or Protestant Christians (19.1%). The positive relationship between issue awareness and the three belief items remained significant in models controlling for political partisanship and religious affiliation.

  3. See Roser-Renouf et al. (2016) for recent survey data on the relationships between causal attributions for global warming, religious beliefs, and political affiliation.


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Correspondence to Jonathon P. Schuldt.

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Schuldt, J.P., Pearson, A.R., Romero-Canyas, R. et al. Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change. Climatic Change 141, 167–177 (2017).

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  • Climate Change
  • Public Opinion
  • Mitigate Climate Change
  • Moral Belief
  • Religious Leader