Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Climates of Belief

Pope Francis is scheduled to release an encyclical on the environment Thursday. Earlier today, some new survey data from Pew provides the most recent insight into what Catholics think nationally about climate change (and Pope Francis). We can also use survey data to understand how the encyclical might impact local communities. Where will the work of pastors perhaps be easier than in other places in America?

Yale researchers have aggregated surveys with sufficient sample sizes to allow for localized analysis to the county level. The table below shows the counties where the most American adults believe warming is happening and that human activities are mostly the cause of this change. The last column of the table shows the size of the Catholic adherent population (i.e., those who are active and parish-affiliated) as a percentage of the total population in each county from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. One county stands out—Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston (shown on the right in the image above). Just below New York City in terms of belief in climate change, it is the most Catholic of the climate change believing counties with Catholic adherents making up 46% of the population.

Where might there likely be more resistance to the encyclical? The table below shows the dozen counties with the lowest levels of belief in climate change. Once again one county (…that is “parish”) stands out—Point Coupee, Louisiana (shown in the left in the image above). Similar to Suffolk County just under half the population are Catholic adherents. Here though, a minority of the population believes warming is occurring and just more than a third believe human activity is primarily causing warming.

The figure below shows these data for all counties in the United States for Catholic adherents and for the percentage believing human activity is causing warming. There is a weak association between the two. As the Catholic adherent percentage increases so too does belief in human-caused warming.

This is easier to see in the second figure showing average belief by five different Catholic adherent population levels—from less than 5% to 30% or more. Belief subtly slopes up across the figure left (lower numbers of Catholic adherents) to right (higher levels of Catholic adherents).

After the encyclical is released I can imagine there will be a variety of reactions from the media, the Catholic public, politicians, and scientists. As a political scientist who studies the Church I have a special interest in each of these sub-groups of the population. Climate predictions may be outside of my field but I can imagine the following questions will come up...

How can Pope Francis speak about matters of science?
From time to time popes are called upon to comment on current and in this case predicted future events. However, when doing so they always run the risk of critics countering that they are not qualified to speak on these matters. When Pope Francis speaks critically about some aspect of capitalism I can always count on hearing “He’s not an economist.” Similarly I’ve heard several people say that Pope Francis should stay out of matters of science. For example, in January, conservative radio host Michael Savage said on air, “Suddenly the pope, who has no background in science, is saying that global warming is the biggest threat to mankind.” Mr. Savage seemed to be unaware that Pope Francis actually has a science background. One could argue he is just as qualified as the seemingly omnipresent Bill Nye “The Science Guy” to comment on this issue. While Nye has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering (…a bow tie, legacy of being a children’s show host), Pope Francis has a technical degree in chemistry and spent time working in laboratories before entering the seminary (...not a graduate degree though as has been reported). On a more macro level, the Church is typically viewed as an enemy of science and as recently pointed out by the Associated Press this is a rather uninformed point of view. Regardless, I am sure references to Galileo will be common on Thursday. 

Is climate science “settled?”
As a scientist it makes me cringe whenever I hear this phrase (most often uttered by politicians rather than scientists). In reality science is never settled. Newton was right about gravity... and wrong. We didn't understand this until Einstein introduced general relativity. More wrinkles in physics have been added by quantum mechanics. String theory may contribute more nuance. If you asked scientists in the mid-1700s if Newton was correct and his work was “settled science” they would have agreed with you. Yet they knew so little. That is why science is not done by simply taking polls of scientists. All that matters is observations, data, and evidence. It is a beautiful system that always self-corrects in the long-term. If someone can’t replicate your work you will eventually be disregarded. There is no need to brand people as a “denier” for questioning current climate science models. No need to reinvent the inquisition! If someone is saying something that doesn’t fit the evidence simply prove them wrong. Ad hominem attacks are by their very nature unscientific.

The biggest challenge with climate change is complexity. We know what greenhouse gasses do in the laboratory. But the real world has many more variables than we can incorporate in the lab and some of these variables are rather unpredictable. Rather than being settled science I would consider the current state of climate research to be “normal science.” As Thomas Kuhn explained in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like” (p. 5). This is a period that emphasizes group think and agreement between scientists. It is a defensive phase (e.g., branding others “deniers”). Normal science is sometimes changed, advanced really, by scientific revolutions. Periods where new discoveries can no longer be ignored and existing theories and models either fall away or survive incorporated into a new understanding of reality. Our current understanding of climate change, and all the predictions derived from it, may end up being absolutely correct. But any scientist knows that we cannot be absolutely sure of this. Therefore the term “settled” is more of a political notion than a scientific conclusion.

Is the world getting warmer or has warming paused?
Yes. Both. There have been periods where the world has warmed more quickly and in closer connection to changing levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Where one sees carbon dioxide increase and the temperature increase together, expected linear warming can be observed. However, other periods have shown expanding carbon dioxide levels without corresponding increasing temperatures. Again this speaks to the complexity of climate with other non-human factors being important as well such as solar activity, volcanic activity, oceanic absorption, etc.

However, even in a “pause” it is still the case that it is warmer now than in the recent past and this sustained reality continues to impact the environment. Most climate scientists are concerned that the current pause will soon break and we will again see periods of linear warming or even worse a big leap in temperatures in a chain reaction event (i.e., methane releases in the Arctic). The fact remains that one can predict the global mean temperature pretty well by just knowing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (r-square of .895). And if that current correlation continues to be true into the future the global mean temperature would be expected to increase above 60 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Perhaps even more if there is a chain reaction event or more dire predictions from models come true. Yet, skeptics also can show that some of the more dire predictions from the late 1990s failed to appear by 2015 as was expected.

Will the encyclical move the Church in a different direction?
I haven't read it yet. But I do know that the Church has already supported protecting the environment for many years. For example, in 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) called for “careful stewardship of the earth and its natural resources” and noted that “care for the earth and for the environment is a moral issue. ... Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change, focusing on the virtue of prudence, pursuit of the common good, and the impact on the poor, particularly on vulnerable workers and the poorest nations.” The media may portray the encyclical as a change in direction but it will likely be understood within the Church as part of a longstanding commitment to protect the earth and environment. There is no shortage of statements from recent popes on this issue. The biggest impact of the encyclical may be in its elevating the Church’s existing concerns on environmental matters to a higher level. This will likely be well received in Suffolk County, Massachusetts and perhaps less so in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana.

Images courtesy of Ron Kikuchi and Jeff Gunn.

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