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Michal J. KramarekMarch 26, 2024
A man wraps his shirt over his face as he tries to extinguish a fire, near the seaside resort of Lindos, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on July 24, 2023. Among other regions, Europe is facing growing climate risks and is unprepared for them, the European Environment Agency said on March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)A man wraps his shirt over his face as he tries to extinguish a fire on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, in southeastern Greece, on July 24, 2023. Among other regions, Europe is facing growing climate risks and is unprepared for them, the European Environment Agency said on March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

Last year, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum” (“To All People of Good Will on the Climate Crisis”) and this year, climate justice is one of several polarizing election issues. So what do U.S. Catholics think about the pope’s calls for speedier action against the climate crisis, and what do they think about the broad issue of environmental justice?

In December, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a national poll of 1,342 Catholic adults that explored these and other related questions. Our poll (read the full results on the CARA website) showed that most U.S. Catholics see climate change as a serious problem, but a majority believe that the church is doing enough to address global warming. Only one-third were aware of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si,” and so far they are paying more attention to other issues during this election year. In general, the church’s efforts to address global warming may find the most receptive audience among young adults, those who attend Mass weekly or more often, and those who identify as Democrats.

Do Catholics see climate change as a problem? Yes. According to our poll, two-thirds of Catholics (67 percent) agree that “globally, temperatures on Earth are getting warmer, on average, in response to higher concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane.” (This includes 36 percent who “strongly agree.”) This result was not significantly different from a poll conducted by CARA in 2016. In our new poll, just over half of Democrats (51 percent) said they “agree strongly” with this statement, compared with 34 percent of independents and 19 percent of Republicans.

An even higher share of U.S. Catholics (72 percent) believe that “environmental justice is a legitimate issue that needs urgent attention.” Democrats were 33 percentage points more likely than Republicans and 11 percentage points more likely than independents to believe this.

Finally, three in five Catholics (62 percent) are concerned that “climate change will harm them personally at some point in their life.”Democrats were 33 percentage points more likely than Republicans and 12 percentage points more likely than independents to share this concern.

Do Catholics see climate change as a high-priority issue? Not this year.When asked about the most important problems facing the country today, Catholics ranked, on average, “environment/pollution/climate change-related issues” second to last (out of 15 problems facing the country today, such as the high cost of living, crime, health care, immigration and racism). Democrats ranked it eighth overall, while Republicans ranked it 13th and independents ranked it 15th. The top problems in the eyes of Catholics at the time of the survey were the high cost of living/inflation, the economy in general, guns/gun control and immigration.

At the same time, 65 percent of adult Catholics said the church’s teachings on care for the environment are “somewhat” or “very much” important to them—second only to the church’s teachings on marriage.

How many Catholics are familiar with the concept of environmental justice? Eleven percent of Catholics indicated that they “know well what [climate justice] is about,” and another 32 percent indicated that “they have a general sense of what it is about,” while the remaining 57 percent had never heard about it or heard about it but did not know what it is. About one-third (33 percent) said they had heard about “Laudato Si’” (“On Care for Our Common Home”), the encyclical released by Pope Francis in 2015.

About three in five Catholics (61 percent) said they had come across the topic of environmental justice at a Catholic venue (e.g., at Mass or on a Catholic website, radio station or TV channel) in the last quarter of 2023.

Do Catholics feel responsible for combating climate change? Yes. Almost four out of five Catholics (76 percent) said they “have a moral responsibility to personally do what [they] can to combat climate change.” Democrats were 21 percentage points more likely than Republicans and 13 percentage points more likely than independents to feel this moral responsibility.

Two-thirds of Catholics (66 percent) agreed that “increasing concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in our atmosphere like carbon dioxide and methane are largely a result of human activity,” including industry, transportation, and energy and food production. This included 32 percent who said they “strongly agree.” Democrats were 29 percentage points more likely than Republicans and 15 percentage points more likely than independents to “strongly agree” with this statement.

Seven in 10 (69 percent) agreed that it is “important” for Catholics to engage in environmental justice (including 22 percent who said it is “very important”). Democrats were 16 percentage points more likely than Republicans and nine percentage points more likely than independents to believe that it is “very important.”

What do Catholics think about the church’s current efforts to combat climate change? Poll respondents were asked whether specific components of the church (i.e., their parishes, dioceses, the U.S. bishops, religious orders, Catholic nonprofits and Pope Francis) already do the right amount to help reduce the effects of global warming, and the share answering “yes” for each ranged from 50 percent to 58 percent. Democrats were between nine and 21 percentage points more likely than Republicans to think that various institutions in the church are doing “too little.” Similarly, independents were 11 to 23 percentage points more likely than Republicans to think that various institutions in the church are doing “too little.”

Overall, Catholics were most likely to say the following institutions and groups are doing “too little” to reduce the effects of global climate change: large businesses and corporations (58 percent), the federal government (56 percent), state elected officials (54 percent), ordinary Americans (54 percent) and the energy industry (54 percent).

Almost half of the Catholics in our poll (45 percent) would like to see the church engage in environmental justice through educating and raising awareness, as well as creating volunteering opportunities. Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to agree with this statement.

How will Catholics vote in 2024? Catholics remain the only major religious group that has shown a tendency to switch between Democratic and Republican candidates in recent national elections. But in our survey, Catholics viewed neither of the two leading presidential candidates in a net positive light. Forty-two percent had a “somewhat” or “very” favorable view of President Joe Biden (with 47 percent saying their view was somewhat or very unfavorable) and 29 percent had a somewhat or very favorable view of former President Donald Trump (with 52 percent saying somewhat or very unfavorable).

Overall, 42 percent of the Catholics in our survey identified themselves as Democrats, compared with 30 percent saying they were Republican and 29 percent who identified as independents, third-party supporters, or “leaning” toward one of the two major parties.

Over the past 10 years, there have been two major teaching documents on climate change from the Vatican, but a limited portion of U.S. Catholics are consciously aware of them. Furthermore, two in five think that the church is doing “too little” to help reduce the effects of global climate change. Our poll reminds us that the church’s task is complicated by polarization and partisan debates.

Note: The CARA poll was conducted from Dec. 13 to 28, 2023. The national poll included 1,342 self-identified Catholic adults and has a credibility interval of ±2.8 percentage points. Additional research and analysis was conducted by Mark M. Gray and Emma Mitchell.

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