The Pope’s #scicomm: Effects of Laudato si’ on beliefs about climate change

Climate change is an extremely polarized issue: while many people firmly believe scientific evidence that human-caused climate change is ruining the planet and our health, many others adamantly maintain that it is not a problem. Figuring out how to communicate the gravity of climate change has been an urgent puzzle for climate change scientists and communicators (a topic I’ve written quite a bit about).

Collectively, we’re trying many different ways of communicating this issue. I especially love these videos by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and others by researcher M. Sanjayan with the University of California and Vox. Pope Francis also contributes to the scicomm effort — in 2015 he published an encyclical called Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, which called for global action toward climate change (he also gave a copy of this encyclical to Donald Trump recently when the two met).

Was Laudato si’ effective?

Did the document influence beliefs about the seriousness of climate change and its effects on the poor? Recent research by Asheley Landrum and colleagues took up this question.

The work is based on survey results from Americans — the same people reported their beliefs about climate change before and after the encyclical came out.

They found that the encyclical did not directly affect people’s beliefs about the seriousness of climate change or its disproportionate effects on the poor.

But… the encyclical did affect people’s views of the pope’s credibility on climate change, encouraging them to see him as more of an authority after the document was published than before. This was especially true for liberals, though, reflecting a sort of echo chamber effect: people who already found climate change to be an issue gave the pope more credit for his stances on climate change after he published the encyclical.

Importantly, these altered views of the pope’s credibility did in turn affect how much people agreed with the pope’s message on climate change. In other words, there wasn’t a direct effect from the publication of the encyclical to agreement with its message; instead, there was first an effect of the document on beliefs about the pope’s credibility, and then an effect of those credibility assessments on agreement with the pope’s message.

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This work reminds us that science communication efforts can’t be considered in isolation. Whether people agree with a message is influenced by factors like their political beliefs and the credibility of the source. This point calls for two directions for future scicomm: for one, communicators should do their best to consider their message and audience holistically — what factors are likely to shape an audience’s receptiveness to a message, and how can those be influenced? This work also reminds us that we need more research on the science of science communication. We need to continue working to understand how people perceive scientific issues and communicators, and how they respond to the scicomm they encounter.


Featured Image: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)

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