Is The ‘Francis Effect’ Overcoming American Indifference to Climate Change?

Last week, Yale University released a study, The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis Changed the Conversation About Global Warming. The report aims to measure the impact of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, released in June. The media buzz surrounding this document produced more than 3,000 news stories, and parishes organized hundreds of reflection and discussion sessions. In this way, Pope Francis has been relying on others to respond to his “urgent appeal” to address ecological degradation, the impact this has had on the lives and livelihoods of our brothers and sisters, and enter into “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (#14).

Interestingly enough, however, even with all the attention given to this document, Yale’s study found that only 28% of Americans – and 36% of U.S. Catholics – heard “a lot” or “some” media coverage on Pope Francis’ views on the environment. Only a quarter of American Catholics said they were aware that Pope Francis had released Laudato Si’ and only 10% reported hearing “some” or “a lot” about Francis’ environmental encyclical at Mass.

Still, Yale’s report finds that more Americans – and even more Catholics – have heard more frequent media coverage about global warming since Laudato Si’ was released and are more likely to discuss this issue with friends or family. The study found that 6% more Americans and 13% more Catholics grew certain that global warming is real and 12% more Americans and 20% more Catholics acknowledge that the world’s poor will be harmed by climate change. Even though there is a wider sense that this is a moral issue (6% more Americans, 8% more U.S. Catholics) and a religious issue (4% more Americans, 7% more U.S. Catholics), this hasn’t translated into broader support for policy changes, aside from the reduction of greenhouse gasses on a national level. Only 2% more Americans support funding research into renewable energy sources, and there was actually a 3% decline for restricting CO2 emissions on coal-fired power plants.

These modest changes are reflected in other recent studies that have shown that the US continues to lag behind the rest of the world in concern about and action on climate change. Also last week, a report issued by the AP and the University of Chicago found that almost 40% of Americans are “not too worried” about global warming. And just days later, a Pew Global survey found that Americans are consistently behind the rest of the world in viewing climate change as an urgent problem and general awareness of its negative impact on people (for example, 45% of American respondents consider global warming a “very serious” problem, compared to 74% in Latin America, 61% in Africa, and 54% in Europe). These recent findings reinforce similar ones from a few months ago, which found little significant difference between the views of US Catholics and their American peers.

So then what’s with all the excitement about the “Francis Effect”? It likely has more to do with American Catholics’ “overwhelming support” for Pope Francis (in which 8 in 10 U.S. Catholics approve the direction in which the pontiff is leading the church), a fast rebound from the sizable drop in support reported as recently as July. Moreover, as the Yale study points out, 17% of Americans and 35% of Catholics attribute Pope Francis’ position on global warming to influencing their own views on the subject (with half of the respondents saying Francis’ position made them more concerned about global warming).

So while many Americans have been impacted by Pope Francis’ work to raise awareness of global warming, this hasn’t exactly “moved the needle” from awareness to concern, to say nothing of commitment to take action.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis warns that “obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” Indeed, indifference to the urgent problems created by global warming appear to thwart Francis’ call for “ecological conversion” (#5) in order to cultivate “a new and universal solidarity” that would lead to inclusive cooperation “as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements, and talents” (#14).

In preparation for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, set to begin in a few weeks, it is worth noting that Pope Francis has dedicated his 2016 World Day of Peace Statement to the theme, “Overcome Indifference.” This comes on the heels of his appeal for Catholics to give up indifference for Lent this past year, urging Christians to conversion away from cold-heartedness by going outside themselves to encounter others in need.

Indifference to global warming certainly persists among US Catholics, even in the midst of this “Francis Effect”: 50% readily admit Pope Francis’ position hasn’t influenced their views on global warming “at all” and only 13% report being “very worried” about the effects of climate change, which is actually lower than the national average of 15%. (In a similar vein, only 5% say this issue is “extremely important” to them, which is lower than the national average of 8%).

So what is to be done?

Perhaps it would help if more than 18% of Catholics could report hearing even a little about this issue in their place of worship. Even still, the effects of teaching/preaching on moral formation does not seem to have the measurable impact on followers’ beliefs and practices as we might like to think (as David Putnam has reported in his book, American Grace and as described here – see pp. 174-182 for his analysis and explanation). Even more powerful than preaching, according to Putnam, is belonging to a religious community: the friendships, experiences, and practices all contribute to build a specific moral character.

In other words, living out a Climate Covenant could have an even greater impact than reading Laudato Si’ – especially if that covenant is lived out as part of a communally-shared discipline. Indeed, the science seems to show us that people have to be socialized into particular beliefs and practices, which means we can’t know the real impact of the “Francis Effect” unless or until it translates to concrete social norms.

Taking to heart Pope John Paul II’s insight that “solidarity is learned from contact rather than concepts,” if the goal is to cultivate a sense of solidarity with all creation (all sharing the same “Common Home,” as Laudato Si’ highlights), then the question becomes, how do we foster the kind of contact between individuals and groups, people and places, to create a sense of belonging that binds us together with the parts of creation suffering from the effects of climate change? Surely, to encounter ecological degradation firsthand – and the impact this has on species, human and nonhuman alike – would make it much harder to remain indifferent to this reality.

How can this be accomplished?

Most obviously, this would mean exploring the natural ecology that surrounds us. In the spirit of Pope Francis’ image for being church – a church that forsakes the laboratory for the frontiers of the world – this means going to the limits of human culture and to the natural wilderness. As eco-theologian Thomas Berry reflects, the purpose of encountering the natural wilderness is to cultivate a sense of intimacy, belongingness, wonder, and awe. He writes:

Intimacy with the planet in its wonder and beauty and the full depth of its meaning is what enables an integral human relationship with the planet to function. It is the only possibility for humans to attain their true flourishing while honoring the other modes of earthly being. The fulfillment of the Earth community is to be caught up in the grandeur of existence itself and in admiration of those mysterious powers whence all this has emerged. Nourishment of both the outer body and the inner spirit will be achieved in intimate association with each other or not at all (The Great Work, xi).

This kind of experience with the natural world is instructive for knowing ourselves as members of creation and learning about the rest of the created order and God, who is revealed as both immanent and transcendent, or “above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). It may also remind us that God made human beings responsible to “cultivate and care for” creation (Gen 2:15) and holds us accountable as covenant partners with God, humanity, and “every living creature” (Gen 9:9-10). This remains a challenge to each and to all as a litmus test for our limits of charity.

In light of the ecological distress fracturing the created order, this encounter with the natural world might be described in terms of what Elizabeth Johnson calls a “unique dialectic.” She explains:

On the one hand, we stand in wonder at the intricate workings of this world as uncovered and popularized by contemporary science. On the other hand, we lament in distress at how human predating is rapidly spoiling this natural world. In this dual ecological context of wonder and wasting, people of faith are rediscovering an ancient theme, namely, the presence and action of the creative Spirit of God throughout the natural world (Quest for the Living God, 182).

Wonder results from taking in the scale of the natural ecology, which reaches back 4 billion years and includes 8.7 million species (6.5 million species on earth, 2.2 million species in the sea), all dynamically evolving and complexly interconnected. Indeed, it is humbling to physically stand in the wild and reflect on the fact that these creatures and elements existed long before and will long outlast any human visitor. And yet this awed perspective cannot last too long before being confronted with the reality of the wasting Johnson also points out: ecological degradation and deprivation as a result of human overconsumption, unsustainable rates of extraction of natural resources, pollution and toxic waste in the land, sea, and air (largely by those living in the developed world, who remain mostly immune to the negative effects, unlike those living in the Global South). Johnson observes that, “Every year, for example, 20 percent of Earth’s people in the rich nations use 75% of the world’s resources and produce 80% of the world’s waste” and that, from 1975-2000, 10% of all living species were made extinct. Even in more recent years, as environmental advocacy has taken hold, 200 more species are made extinct on a daily basis. Knowing that women and children and those living in the Global South suffer disproportionately from these and other features of ecological distress, Johnson calls for a greater awareness of the ways in which God can be found in the natural order, as “within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying, and renewing circle of life” reflected in a “cruciform pattern” in loving solidarity with all of creation that is suffering. Those of us living in the developed world may be blind and deaf to these experiences of crucified peoples, plants, animals, and places, which is why theologians like Ivone Gebara call for a greater sense of ecological relatedness as “the primary reality” that is “constitutive of all things” and Leonardo Boff insists, “only a personal relationship with Earth makes us love it. We do not exploit but respect and reverence the one we love.”

Deep and lasting intimacy, rapport, and love can be cultivated only after first having a personal encounter. In other words, it is difficult to imagine it possible to overcome the widespread American indifference about global warming unless and until more Americans experience it firsthand.

Does this mean there is no alternative to financing field trips for people to see species become extinct or glaciers melt at unprecedented rates? No. In a world that is increasingly mediated through a screen – as much as 9 hours a day for some people, in fact – digital technology and social media offer us a valuable tool to approximate this firsthand encounter when it may not be possible in person.

Possibilities range from watching the inspiring video about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “most astounding fact” in order to feel more connected with all of creation to beholding the sobering images of incredibly massive glacial melt in order to put the current warming trends in perspective.

Indeed, President Obama’s recent decision to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline has been hailed as a miracle, even after a 7-year grassroots battle. It’s difficult to imagine coordinating this kind of environmental advocacy without digital technology or social media. National Geographic, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace all stake out meaningful digital presence through websites, Facebook profile pages, and Instagram accounts. For those who can’t take a hike through a forest or sit beside a babbling brook, having the stunning pictures shared by the U.S. Department of the Interior appear in their Facebook NewsFeed might be the next best way to cultivate a sense of intimacy, belongingness, wonder, and awe. And in moving people from awareness to action, Greenpeace has found a particularly potent recipe for using Twitter to raise awareness about endangered species and shame the companies that threaten them. There are even video games that allow users to recreate Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond, which seems surreal if not absurd at first blush, but then begins to make more sense when we think about how many people this could help “encounter the wild,” which would otherwise be impossible (because of their geographical location, health or ability, lack of free time or finances, etc).

This is not to suggest that digital encounters should replace firsthand experiences offline. Yet as Americans continue to distrust science, even digitally-mediated contact with the natural world might be even more persuasive than what our leaders – whether religious, political, or academic – might be trying to teach us. (It is worth noting that while some have questioned the scientific veracity of global warming, 97% of scientists have supported these findings and many in the scientific community backed the claims about climate change in Laudato Si’.) Recognizing social media networks as “formal learning environments,” we need to be more intentional about the kinds of social norms being constructed through the digital content and contacts we consume and share. Surely, an authentic care for creation need not translate to a Luddite rejection of these digital tools.

Of course none of this is meant to diminish Pope Francis’ teaching authority on matters of faith or morals. At bottom, it remains unclear what the “Francis Effect” will produce. Touting the “Francis Effect” risks making it seem like it’s Francis’ job to convert us, when we are the ones who need to work on our own openness, change, and growth. It is up to us to not only follow Francis’ example, but integrate it into our communities of belonging, online as well as offline. The more we practice an “ecological conversion” (#5) and bring this into our actions and relationships, the more difficult it will be for us – as individuals, as church, and as society – to remain indifferent to the reality that surrounds us and beckons us to grow in ever more inclusive solidarity.

The conclusion was updated for greater clarity on 11/12/15.