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3Qs: Pope’s encyclical ‘shifts the conversation’ on climate change

Pope Francis on Thursday issued a highly anticipated encyclical on climate change, a global call to action to decision-makers as well as ordinary people in their daily lives. In his sweeping document, he framed climate change as a moral issue and outlined the need for transformational changes amid the exploitation and destruction the environment has endured due to fossil fuels and human activity.

Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design, studies the role of communication, journalism, and advocacy in politicized debates over science, the environment, and public health. He’s written extensively on climate change, including recent pieces in The Conversation and New Scientist. Here, he examines the global implications of the Pope’s encyclical and the political impact in the U.S.

Your research has examined politicized debate of climate change, among other science, environmental, and public health issues. What are the global implications of the Pope’s encyclical on this topic?

In the lead up to the United Nations’ climate summit in December, Pope Francis’ encyclical shifts the conversation to focus on climate change as a problem closely connected to issues of social inequality and economic justice. Voicing skepticism of market-based strategies like carbon credits, his moral call to action forces us to consider policy responses that directly aid poorer countries in their pursuit of economic growth and sustainable development.

Such efforts at modernization start with helping poorer countries gain access to cleaner, abundant sources of energy and advanced agricultural techniques.

As Vatican adviser and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, it’s necessary to always stay focused on the major technical hurdles to decarbonizing the world economy. Such a transformation will require not just moral commitment and more mindful consumption, but most importantly major government financing of innovations in solar, wind, nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, and high-tech farming practices.

In your column in New Scientist, you note that the Pope’s encyclical could shift the political debate in the U.S. on climate change. Can you elaborate on how you expect this issue to influence the political landscape and specifically the 2016 election race?

It’s impossible to predict precisely the impact of Pope Francis’ moral call to action on climate change, making it an exaggeration to say that his encyclical is a political game-changer. But the Vatican-led campaign is a significant sign that the conversation about climate change may be shifting.

Though U.S. Catholic bishops are reportedly divided over Pope Francis’ encyclical, his letter marks the launch of coordinated sermons, homilies, and media outreach on the part of several U.S. bishops and aligned Catholic groups. The Vatican-led campaign sets the stage for a September visit to the U.S. by Pope Francis in which he will give separate addresses to the United Nations General Assembly and to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, all in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Summit a few months later in Paris.

Surveys suggest that U.S. Catholics, who comprise about a quarter of voters, are more likely than other Christians to believe that climate change is happening, that it is human caused, and to support policy action. But instead of strongly-held opinions, these beliefs are mostly weak sentiments. Rather than identify the issue as one that involves considerations of right and wrong, most Catholics like other Americans still think about climate change abstractly and in technical terms.

Yet the Vatican-led campaign on climate change has the potential to reframe the issue as a religious and moral imperative, helping parishioners articulate why climate change matters, deepening their commitment to action.

Given Pope Francis’ strong popularity, his September visit is likely to command the type of saturation media coverage more typical of a royal wedding or Super Bowl. Such coverage will help elevate discussion of the moral significance of climate change. Many Catholic churches are also likely to be transformed into engines of civic engagement, as clergy and aligned groups exhort churchgoers to get involved, to reach out to others in their communities, and to contact elected officials.

As you stated, nearly a quarter of the U.S. voters are Catholic. Meanwhile, a number of Republican presidential hopefuls, who themselves are Catholic, have refuted climate science. How will those candidates balance their political stance with their religious affiliation?

The Pope’s outspoken advocacy on the issue is likely to trigger uncomfortable questions that will dog leading Republican candidates like Jeb Bush on the campaign trail and in debates. His address to a joint session of Congress will generate similar tensions for the more than 80 Republican members who are Catholic, including Speaker of the House John Boehner and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

There is a growing caucus of conservative leaders who are arguing that the Republican Party needs to adopt a more responsible position on climate change.  Pope Francis’ encyclical lends support to their cause. Catholics are a key swing vote in the 2016 presidential election and Republican candidates in tight general election races would be wise to pay attention to any opinion shifts among this voter segment.

Sometimes simply the fear or anticipation of such an opinion shift is enough to substantially change the dynamics of election-year debate and policy stands.