It’s a common caricature that climate change is a boutique cause, a kind of luxury that concerns only those who can afford a new Prius. A lot of the most visible faces in the climate movement—Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein—imply a demographic that is white, affluent, and seemingly removed from the real problems that ordinary folks face. The make-up of environmental organizations reenforces this profile, which climate deniers frequently employ to turn people's attention away from rising temperatures and billowing emissions. But it turns out to be nonsense.
Last month, the American Academy of Religion and the Public Religion Research Institute released a report on how people in the United States perceive the prospect of climate change, with a particular focus on religious identity. Its findings highlight a striking divide among Catholics: Among the eight major religious groups measured, Latino Catholics rank at the very top in their degree of concern about the climate—73 percent are very or somewhat concerned—and white Catholics are second to last at 41 percent.
There is also a homily divide. The same breakdown holds among those asked how often their clergy discuss climate change: Latino Catholics in the lead, white Catholics dead last. And preaching matters. The report found that those who hear clergy speak regularly on the subject are 13 percent more likely to believe that climate change is real and, as the scientific concensus holds, caused largely by human activity.
People with active spiritual lives tend to be more concerned about climate change. But even when religion is off the table, Latinos and black Americans are both more than twice as likely than their white neighbors to believe climate change will affect them. Not surprisingly, those groups most on the receiving end of the U.S. economy are also most troubled by the environmental damage it exacerbates.
When I spoke with the report’s lead author, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, he credited the interest of Latino Catholics in climate change to their ongoing contact with communities in poorer countries that experience the impact firsthand. Sixty-two percent of Latinos fear the effects of climate change in poor countries, compared to only 49 percent of white Americans. The Catholic climate gap, it seems, may be a gap of knowledge and of solidarity.
The denialism that still enchants the majority of white Catholics—and their clergy—is about to lead them into a serious dilemma. Pope Francis is preparing to release an encyclical on climate change in the coming year. It’s about to get far less easy to sit respectably in the pews while ignoring the science and the mounting cost of the carbon economy for vulnerable communities and the natural order. For those holding out in the denialist reverie, now might be a good time to consider waking up.