LONDON, March 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pope Francis might be preaching to the choir on climate change when he releases his environmental- and sustainability-focused encyclical later this year.
A study released by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has found that more Catholics in the United States are worried about global warming than other Christian groups and they are more supportive of policy action to reduce the effects of climate change.
The findings come as Pope Francis has taken a strong stance backing action on climate change, saying it is largely a man-made problem and that it risks the lives of the world's most vulnerable.
He criticised negotiators at U.N. climate talks in Peru last December, saying they had displayed "a lack of courage" in failing to push for stronger action.
"Pope Francis has become the most admired man in America and when he speaks, he speaks with a loud megaphone, one that reaches all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project.
"Climate change is not just a political issue, it's a moral and religious issue and he will ask people, 'What does my religious faith have to tell me and guide me about climate change?' And it turns out that he's speaking to a very willing audience within the Catholic community."
The survey, which polled 1,275 adults, found that 70 percent of Catholics said global warming is happening, compared to 57 percent of other Christians, including people who identified themselves as Baptist, Protestant, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, or members of other Christian faiths.
Almost half of Catholics said global warming is primarily human-caused (48 percent) and understand that most scientists believe global warming is happening (46 percent), compared to other Christians at 35 percent and 37 percent, respectively, the study said.
Another Yale study found that understanding the scientific consensus on climate change - 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it is very likely due to human activities, NASA says - is a "gateway belief" that influences other key beliefs about climate change.
Pope Francis is expected to publish his teaching document in June or July, ahead of the United Nations climate change negotiations scheduled for December in Paris. He is also expected to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress in September.
Leiserowitz said the Pope's announcement will "cut against the common political belief systems within the Catholic community."
"We can see this division play out right now between moderate, liberal, and conservative Catholics," he said. "What's going to happen when the Pope comes out with his statement about global warming and how it's a moral and religious duty to address it when conservative presidential and congressional candidates (in the 2016 election) are appeasing their base?"
"Will they change their view to be more aligned with the Church or stick with their identity as a conservative?" he asked.
In terms of addressing climate change, 81 percent of Catholics said in the survey that they support government funding for solar and wind power and tax rebates for people purchasing energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels. The same policies received support from 73 percent of other Christians, the Yale study suggests.
About 69 percent of Catholics also supported requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable resources, even if household bills increased $100 a year, compared to 53 percent of other Christians.
MORAL 'WAKE-UP CALL'
Pope Francis isn't the only religious leader to speak out on environmental issues. However, he is one of the first very high-profile church leaders to take an outspoken stance on the need for action on climate change, and his international popularity is such that his views are listened to, Leiserowitz said.
The study "is definitely a wake-up call to many within the Catholic community about where their own members are at politically and morally, and how they might want to prioritise climate change as a stronger priority," he said.
Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a national organization that encourages Catholics to act on Catholic teaching as it relates to care for creation and climate change, said the Pope's encyclical should be viewed as "a pastoral statement by the leader of our Church who is concerned about the moral consequences of climate change."
"Our hope is that people realise this is not a political statement, a scientific statement, or a social statement," he said. "It will have economic, political, and social consequences, but it's not intended to be a statement in those arenas."
Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network and founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, said there could be a divide within the Catholic community about the Pope's message, but he hopes people see it as a "call to action."
"He has really struck a nerve with people, and not just Catholics," he said. "It (climate change) is a moral and spiritual issue and so far we've been trying to convince people of its effects with charts and graphs. Instead, we have to really touch their hearts and have a dialogue about it, and I hope it (the encyclical) does touch hearts." (Reporting by Kyle Plantz; editing by Laurie Goering)
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