Press "Enter" to skip to content

Rhetoric of a Pope

Pope Francis Korea Haemi Castle - Government of South Korea
Pope Francis Korea Haemi Castle – Government of South Korea

On Thursday, Pope Francis issued an encyclical calling for radical changes in the global economy and modern politics to mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic global warming among other things. “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,” he wrote.

As Science Around Michigan is a project for discussion of science, science news, and science communication, I do not intend to write about or cast judgment on the encyclical itself or the content of its message (environmental stewardship is not the only topic discussed). Instead, I am more interested in the rhetorical importance of the context surrounding it and what this might mean for science communication.

Science and Religion

Research shows that for many Americans when it comes to accepting science, religion plays a major role.  “Relatively few Christians say they accept scientific explanations when they conflict with prior religious or spiritual beliefs (22% of Catholics, 20% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 11% of evangelicals)” (Leiserowitz, A., et al 2015).

Conflict Between Religious Views and Science
Conflict Between Religious Views and Science – Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

The study also found that “relatively few Christians say that God expects people to rule over nature (11% of Catholics, 11% of non- evangelical Protestants, and 18% of evangelicals). Almost half of evangelicals (49%) say that God expects people to be good stewards of nature – compared to Catholics (41%) and non-evangelical Protestants (37%).”

Call to Action

The science is quite clear on the importance of immediate mitigation efforts with regard to addressing carbon dioxide emissions. The IPCC AR5 Policymaker Summary laid out the current best understanding of greenhouse gas emission projections and current mitigation actions, saying that “without additional efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial level.”

But the certainty of necessity does not extend to the general population, particularly those who identify as Christian. “In fact, majorities say people in the United States won’t be harmed for at least 25 years, if ever (59%, 62%, and 65%, respectively)” (Leiserowitz, A., et al 2015).

The Partisan Divide

When you look into the numbers concerning Catholic acceptance of several facets of the theory of anthropogenic global warming, you come to a familiar point–staunch partisan divide.

popeEnvironment featured image

Research into the partisan divide found a systemic problem concerned with emotional identity attachments to modern economic systems. “Liberals and Democrats are more likely to take the side of the scientific consensus and many environmental movement organizations, proclaiming that global warming is real, is human-caused, and is a worrisome threat. On the other hand, conservatives and Republicans are more likely to dispute or deny the scientific consensus and the claims of the environmental community, thereby defending the industrial capitalist system” (McCright and Dunlap 2011).

This presents a particularly difficult problem for science communicators as the issue of acceptance is no longer a question of effective logical presentation of scientific fact. It is now at its heart an issue of emotional persuasion and credibility of authority. Why is this a difficult problem? Because of the “backfire effect.”

In an interview with Vox Media in 2014, psychologist Robert Lewandowsky explained that “the moment you get into situations that are emotionally charged, that are political, that are things that affect people’s fundamental beliefs — then you’ve got a serious problem. Because what might happen is that they’re going to dig in their heels and become more convinced of the information that is actually false. There are so-called backfire effects that can occur, and then the initial belief becomes more entrenched.”


We’re left with something of an uncertainty. We know that people who identify as Christian take strong direction from their faith when it comes to issues concerning the intersection of science and religion. And we also know that Pope Francis comes into this discussion with impeccable ethos (as seen below).

Most Non-Catholic Religious Groups Rate Pope Francis Favorably
Most Non-Catholic Religious Groups Rate Pope Francis Favorably

And as was found by Leiserowitz, A., et al. (2015), “American Christians most trust climate scientists and friends/family most as sources of global warming information. Of the religious leaders asked about, Pope Francis is the most trusted. [emphasis added]”

The question really becomes — can the Pope’s authority and credibility on matters of religious belief help overcome the deep partisan divide that plagues acceptance of scientific consensus? Will the emotional persuasion overcome the reflexivity of identity politics?


Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Rosenthal, S. (2015) Climate change in the American Christian mind: March, 2015. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

IPCC, 2014: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Work- ing Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010. The Sociological Quarterly52(2), 155-194.



  1. Mike Mike June 18, 2015

    What does the AR mean in the IPCC name?

    • Adrian de Novato Adrian de Novato Post author | June 18, 2015


      IPCC AR5 is short for Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Leave a Reply