U.S. Catholics divided over global warming

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On the eve of a forthcoming encyclical by Pope Francis on the environment and climate change, a new Pew Research Center survey finds U.S. Catholics' views on global warming are broadly reflective of overall American public opinion; a solid majority believe that Earth is warming, but there is much more division over the cause and seriousness of climate change. Moreover, the poll shows that climate change is a highly politicized issue that sharply divides American Catholics, like the U.S. public as a whole, mainly along political party lines.

About seven-in-10 U.S. Catholics (71 percent) believe the planet is getting warmer. Nearly half of Catholic adults (47 percent) attribute global warming to human causes and a similar share (48 percent) view it as a very serious problem.

But more than eight-in-10 Catholic Democrats say there is solid evidence that Earth is warming, compared with just half of Catholic Republicans. And while six-in-10 Catholic Democrats say global warming is a man-made phenomenon and that it poses a very serious problem, only about a quarter of Catholic Republicans agree.

Among the U.S. public as a whole, belief that global warming is occurring is nearly twice as common among Democrats as Republicans (86 percent vs. 45 percent). The view that global warming is caused by human activity is roughly three times as common among Democrats as among members of the GOP (64 percent vs. 22 percent), as is the view that it represents a very serious problem (67 percent vs. 21 percent).

The survey also finds large differences in views on global warming between Hispanic Catholics and white, non-Hispanic Catholics. Hispanic Catholics are much more inclined than white Catholics to say that global warming is occurring, is mostly a consequence of human activity and is a very serious problem. Here again, these patterns mirror differences by race and ethnicity seen among the general public.

Generally speaking, Catholics express higher levels of belief in global warming and concern about its effects than do Protestants, but lower levels than people who are religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics and those whose religion is "nothing in particular"). However, analysis of the survey findings shows that political party identification and race/ethnicity are much better predictors of environmental attitudes than are religious identity or observance.

The survey also finds:

- Aside from a brief dip in early 2014, the share of Americans who believe there is solid evidence the planet is getting warmer and that warming is mainly caused by human activity has remained relatively steady between 2013 and today. However, more people now view global warming as a very serious problem than in 2013, when the question was last asked in a nationwide Pew Research Center telephone survey. Nearly half of U.S. adults (46 percent) now hold this view, up from a third in 2013 (but on par with the share who expressed such concern in 2007 and 2008). This shift has occurred among most major religious groups in the United States, including Catholics.

- Among the public as a whole, the view that global warming represents a very serious problem has grown much more among Democrats (from 48 percent to 67 percent) than among the GOP (from 14 percent to 21 percent) between 2013 and 2015.

- Fully 86 percent of U.S. Catholics say they view Pope Francis favorably, and nearly seven-in-ten (69 percent) say he represents a major change for the better for the Catholic Church - the same share who said this a year after his election.

- Pope Francis gets high marks for his handling of specific tasks, with most Catholics giving him either "excellent" or "good" ratings on a wide range of responsibilities, from promoting good relations between major religions to addressing the sex abuse scandal. He earns the highest praise for spreading the Catholic faith and for addressing the needs and concerns of the poor, with about four-in-ten giving him an "excellent" rating in each of these areas (41 percent and 42 percent, respectively).

- A few months before the pope's scheduled trip to the United States in September to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, 35 percent of Catholics give him an "excellent" rating for his work so far on behalf of families, while 44 percent say he has done a "good" job in this area.

- While just over half of U.S. Catholics say Pope Francis is doing an excellent or good job addressing the sex abuse scandal (55 percent), about one-in-10 (12 percent) say he is doing a poor job dealing with this matter, 22 percent say he has done only a fair job and 11 percent express no opinion.

Just 53 percent of Catholics give the pope a favorable rating for his work addressing environmental issues. The survey finds 18 percent of Catholics think Pope Francis has done an "excellent" job on environmental issues so far. An additional 35 percent of Catholics say he has done a "good" job in this area, while the remainder rate his performance "only fair" (25 percent) or "poor" (4 percent), or express no opinion (18 percent).

Catholic Democrats give Pope Francis slightly more positive marks on this issue than Catholic Republicans; 21 percent of Catholic Democrats say Pope Francis has done an excellent job addressing environmental issues, compared with 13 percent of Catholic Republicans.

Read the survey

The full report, "Catholics Divided over Global Warming," is available at pewforum.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015