The Sciences

Will the Vatican’s declaration on global warming have an impact on the overall climate debate?

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionMay 11, 2011 11:50 PM


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This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

The Pontifical Academy of Science, the Vatican’s non-denominational science panel, has declared that global action on climate change must be undertaken in order to avoid "serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases…” These warnings are part of a report entitled "Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene.” The report was released along with a public address. The statement urges,

"all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home." [Read the entire statement]

But, will this appeal to the people of the world make a difference? That is a difficult question for which I am not equipped to respond. Will it have an impact on American policy? Sadly, I will argue, no, it will not have a major effect on the proceedings within our government on policies related to global warming. Here’s why. A concept of effective science communication that is gaining support is that experts' opinions matter when they are perceived to reflect the emotional interests and values of a group. We know from Dan Kahan's work that when two groups differ on a scientific issue, those who are less informed about the topic tend to follow the experts who appear to represent their values. Kahan identified two groups who might view a particular scientific issue differently. He classified them as "people with individualistic and hierarchical values, who prize personal initiative and respect authority" and "people who subscribe to more egalitarian and communitarian values." Whereas the message from the Catholic Church would seem to appeal to people with more individualistic and hierarchical values, I would argue that, at least in America, the Catholic Church is not considered to be a leader in the minds of our political "conservatives." In fact, as recently as two years ago, a study conducted by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that only 21% of Catholics are either strongly or weakly affiliated with the Republican Party. Instead, Republicans have effectively formed an alliance with evangelicals and Southern pastors of the Protestant persuasion. This essentially defines Catholics, for Republicans, as "the other team." It also creates the context in which Republicans can maintain their position as deniers of anthropogenic climate change without losing a major part of their political base, White, Southern Protestants. In fact, a recent report released by LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist-affiliated polling agency, concluded that 60% percent of Protestant pastors disagree that global warming is real and man-made, and 41 percent of them "strongly" disagree. So, as reassuring as it was for those of us who appreciate the threat of man-caused global warming to hear of the report from the Catholic Church, it will unlikely be a game-changing event in America.

I suppose we'll have to wait for droughts to hit Texas, incredibly powerful hurricanes to strike the Gulf states, massive tornado outbreaks to wipeout Southern communities, unprecedented flooding to hit rivers in the Southern states and for crop yields to begin to collapse due to warmer temperatures. ******[Clarification: I do not intend to suggest that recent weather events are verification of global warming, despite the fact that extreme weather is predicted by scientists to occur due to man-caused climate change. Instead, I am wondering aloud what it will take for climate change deniers to come to the realization that the planet is changing due to human activities. If not scientific evidence, then what? A message from God?]

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