The Pope Francis effect: One speech on climate change, a 10-20 point shift in opinion polls

Pope Francis’s campaign for the climate has won hearts and minds in the United States in just a matter of months, suggests a recent survey of Americans’ attitudes to climate change (pdf). Yale University researchers are calling it another example of “The Francis Effect.”

The number of people who are worried about global warming has increased by 8% among Americans and 11% among Catholics, according to a November report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The report draws on a nationally representative survey of of 900 respondents.

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Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who say global warming is happening grew from 62% in March to 66% in October this year. And there’s been an even bigger increase in the number of American Catholics who recognize global warming: from 64% in March to 74% in October.

Pope Francis spoke movingly about the issue in September before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, when he warned that “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.”

In the survey report, researchers credit Pope Francis for much of the shift in public opinion:

Our findings suggest that the Pope’s teachings about global warming contributed to an increase in public engagement on the issue, and influenced the conversation about global warming in America; we refer to this as The Francis Effect.

Many of those surveyed (17% of Americans and 35% of American Catholics) said the Pope’s views on global warming had influenced their own.

There were also significant increases in the percentage of Americans who see climate change as a moral issue, and a 20 percentage point increase in the number of American Catholics who think global warming will harm the world’s poor. Meanwhile, there was a decrease (6 points among Americans and 10 points among American Catholics) who deny that climate change is caused by human activity.

The pope’s speech may not have a permanent impact, note the survey authors. But it’s still reassuring to see how quickly public opinion can be shifted toward taking climate change seriously.

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