Dan Gorodezky

2015’s best advocate for the rights of the environment may very well be the Pope. And if other religious leaders follow his example, the U.S. just might be on its way to successfully combating climate change.

Climate change has been acknowledged as an environmental and politically divisive issue for years, but a new report published this month by Yale and George Mason universities suggests that redefining it as a moral issue may lead to more widespread support for action on behalf of Mother Earth.

The report, entitled “Faith, Morality and the Environment,” explores the wide range of American attitudes on climate change. Dividing these attitudes into six distinct categories, the report analyzes the traits and beliefs that each grouping holds. Its analysis suggests that large sectors of the American public who do not currently feel that climate change is a dangerous and very present threat can be convinced of the necessity of action if the issue’s presented as a moral one.

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Senior research scientist and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication director Anthony Leiserowitz is part of the team working on “Climate Change in the American Mind,” a long-term project in the YPCCC. Since 2008, the team has written two national surveys on climate change each year. Over the course of their research, they’ve used statistical analysis methods to identify the aforementioned six groupings of Americans who respond uniquely to the issue of climate change; Leiserowitz calls these the “Six Americas.” According to Leiserowitz, understanding the Six Americas is key to understanding how to reframe climate change as a moral issue for all Americans.

“It is impossible to address America as a single group with a single mindset, and we know that one of the first rules of effective communication is ‘know thy audience,’” Leiserowitz said. “Otherwise, it’s kind of like trying to play darts in the dark with a blindfold on.”

The group that the YPCCC refers to as the “Alarmed” consists of the 12 percent of Americans most engaged in acknowledging and combating global warming. According to the report, the Alarmed are the most likely to view global warming as a moral issue — and therefore the most likely to support strong action against climate change.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the “Dismissive,” who neither believe in global warming nor see it as a threat. In fact, they tend to view it as a largely political issue. Dismissive individuals are oftentimes “conspiracy theorists,” Leiserowitz said with a wry laugh.

It’s the four groups in the center of the spectrum — the “Concerned,” “Cautious,” “Disengaged,” and “Doubtful” — who are most likely to be reached if climate change is reframed as a moral issue, Leiserowitz explained. And in order to convince people that it’s a moral ill to stand idly by while global warming threatens to destroy the world as we know it, the discussion needs to be led by moral authorities, many of whom may be religious in nature.

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As the team’s research suggests, it’s important to gain the support of religious and community leaders: It may even be necessary for opening up discussions on climate change and its consequences in American homes. A report the YPCCC published in November discussed the effects of Pope Francis’s support for sustainability and environmental activism. The Pope — who made his stance clear when he declared in front of the United Nations in September 2015, “Any harm done to the environment therefore is harm done to humanity” — had the potential to significantly impact the way Americans view climate change, co-author Edward Maibach said.

“Although relatively few Americans were seeing climate change as a moral issue last year before the release of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, our research showed that many Americans [now] have the potential to see climate change as a moral issue,” Maibach said.

Connie Roser-Renouf, lead author of the report, suggested that because the news typically frames global warming as a scientific and political issue, the topic may alienate many Americans who aren’t particularly interested in either science or politics. If activists could make clear that global warming is a moral issue, Americans would likely express significantly more interest in working against it, Roser-Renouf said.

She added that while Americans across the board feel that it’s important to help the poor and future generations, many do not yet recognize that global warming poses a real and significant threat to those groups. In fact, there is a high level of religiosity in the USA along with a perceived conflict between religion and science, she said. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Some politicians seek to exploit that apparent conflict, but many religious leaders, like Pope Francis, recognize climate change as an important moral issue. In fact, according to Roser-Renouf, many of the religious Americans who are on the fence about the legitimacy of climate change believe that humans are meant to be “stewards” of nature: At the same time, they do not recognize the potential damage to nature that climate change can cause. And the voices of scientists and political leaders alike have not been enough to bridge that disconnect.

“It’s likely that more people will listen when religious leaders speak up about climate change,” Roser-Renouf said. “The moral authority of figures like Pope Francis may reach segments of the public who have not yet recognized the issue as having any personal significance.”

And other researchers share that expectation. Matthew Riley DIV ’08, a lecturer at the Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, studies how individuals interact with the environment based on their values and beliefs, primarily looking at those who follow one of the world’s major religions. Riley agrees that there is more to environmental issues than just science and politics. Rather, there’s a larger spiritual value, which he describes as a connection with nature, that some Americans may have lost sight of. Riley has studied the way religion intersects with nature, and he has noticed that many of the world’s major religions are increasingly supporting environmental activism. When asked if he felt climate change was a moral issue, Riley responded, “absolutely.”

“Each of the world’s religions is going back and re-examining and reinterpreting their sacred texts to seek for guidance on how, in the 21st century, to use our deepest values and convictions to guide us in this very different world. Because none of those ancient leaders — Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, etc. — had any inkling of climate change,” said Leiserowitz.

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On a smaller scale, Yale undergraduate students have been working to improve sustainability practices on campus. While changing student behavior is a less demanding task than changing the views of the entire American populace, the issues that Yale’s Sustainability Coordinators identified in convincing their classmates of the importance of a sustainable lifestyle were highly similar to those discussed in the YPCCC report.

When it comes to encouraging students to make changes in order to live more sustainable lives, there doesn’t seem to be a single approach that works across the board. According to former Trumbull College Sustainability Coordinator Alexandra Golden ’17, many people will only make necessary changes if they are convenient, and the conversation can vary widely depending on whom you’re talking to.

Ezra Stiles College Sustainability Coordinator Sophie Freeman ’18 expressed a similar sentiment. The efficacy of change depends on your audience — you need to reach people based on their values, Freeman said. And oftentimes, according to Pierson College Sustainability Coordinator Pratik Gandhi ’18, people are simply unaware of the ways in which their lifestyles affect the environment.

These sentiments reflect what the YPCCC report explores: In order to change people’s views and, more importantly, behaviors regarding sustainability, those people must be addressed according to their individual systems of belief. All three sustainability coordinators stressed that while students may feel that climate change is a real threat, they tend not to see it as a moral concern and consequently do not change how they conduct themselves.

“I see [climate change] as both a scientific and moral issue,” Gandhi said. “Sustainability is not just about one person on a crusade to save the world. It is about communities committing to leading better lives, not just for the sake of the environment, but for their own health and that of future generations.”