With the Pope Francis’ visit to the US, it is nearly impossible to turn on the news and not hear something about it (and Boehner retiring, but apparently that’s related, too). And, invariably, in those same news stories, you also hear about how the U.S.’s Catholic conservatives are criticizing or feel somehow alienated by this current Pope. While his position on social justice, global economics, abortion, and homosexuality has received considerable criticism, the Pope’s stance on climate change has triggered almost a toxic response from a number of conservative circles, including from many Republican presidential candidates.
Now, ignoring the fact that Pope Francis’ approval rating is 90% among US Catholics (implying that something must ring true about his message to most Americans), and ignoring a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute that finds that most non-white U.S. Catholics actually agree with the Pope’s position, it makes a lot of sense why the head of one of the world’s largest religions would take the position he does regarding climate change.
First, the position that climate change is due to human action is not radical, but rather the general consensus of the scientific community. Google “climate change and human action,” and you will find a number of reputable sources and scientific studies reiterating this point, including material from NASA (it’s covered in the very first sentence on their website) and NOAA (for those not familiar with this federal agency, this is basically the weather guys). Note that I skipped over the sources who have a clear environmental focus, like the EU’s European Environment Agency or the U.S.’s EPA…but they will give you pretty much the same answer.
However, even if the the Pope’s position that climate change has human causes is actually pretty mainstream, this does not provide sufficient justification for why it would be such a policy focus. However, if we return to this idea that he is the public face of an organization that represents over 1.2 billion people, with over half in developing countries, this emphasis on climate change also makes a lot of sense.
A 2015 global survey by the Pew Research Center found that for most people in developing countries, climate change was the issue they considered the top global threat. 19 of the 40 nations rated climate change as their biggest concern, with worry about this issue highest in Latin America…a region that, coincidentally, is also home to a plurality of the world’s Catholics.
If we go off the numbers, Catholics represent roughly 24% of the US population, meaning that US Catholics comprise roughly 6% of the global Roman Catholic population. And, if the PRRI study mentioned above is correct, 47% of US Catholics agree with Pope Francis’ stance on climate change and only 24% disagreed (with the rest either not knowing his position or not answering). In contrast, over 41% of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, and they do not only see climate change as a threat, but 61% consider it the threat in the modern era. Given these numbers, it is U.S. conservative Catholics, not the Pope, who need to consider whether they are out of step with the beliefs of the Church.