White and Latino Catholics “Living in Different Worlds” On Climate Change

Ahead of Pope Francis’s highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, due out Thursday, Public Religion Research Institute has found a remarkable split between Latino and white Catholics on climate change.

According to data collected for the November 2014 PRRI/AAR Religion, Values and Climate Change Survey, white Catholics (34 percent) in the U.S. are twice as likely as Latino Catholics (15 percent) to question the reality of climate change. Latino Catholics are far more likely (61 percent) than white Catholics (40 percent) to say climate change is caused by human activity, and are much greater believers that climate change is a “crisis” or “major problem” (73 percent) than white Catholics are (53 percent).

Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director, told me the data shows “really dramatic differences between Latinos and white Americans,” representing a “huge gulf between these two groups.”

On climate change, said Cox,  “it’s like they’re living in different worlds.”

Latino Catholics are also more likely than the general population to believe the scientific consensus on climate change, whereas white Catholics are less likely. Forty-eight percent of the American public believes the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. But only 39 percent of white Catholics believe this consensus, while 61 percent of Latino Catholics do. That’s a considerable split between not just Latino Catholics and their white co-religionists, but between Latinos and other Americans.

PRRI’s data also shows that Latinos born outside the United States are more likely to believe that humans cause climate change (65 percent) than Latinos born here (50 percent).

Several factors account for the divide between Latinos and other Americans, and even between Latinos born in the U.S. and Latinos who immigrated here. In Latin American countries, said Cox, other public opinion surveys show the issue of climate change is much more salient and pressing, with their populations more supportive of action to combat it than in the United States and Europe. “There’s a political will to do something about it,” he said, and “those transnational ties are influential to their [Latino immigrants to the U.S.’s] attitudes about it.” Francis, the first Latin American Pope, is from Argentina.

Latino Catholics in the United States are also more likely to hear about climate change at church than their white counterparts, by an eye-popping margin. According to PRRI’s data, 70 percent of Latino Catholics say their clergy speak about climate change at church “at least occasionally,” compared to just 20 percent of white Catholics.

As Laurie Goodstein reports in the New York Times, many U.S. bishops are wary of the forthcoming encyclical, saying they are reluctant to get embroiled in a contested political issue (which seems odd given their enthusiasm for other contested political issues) and because of qualms over allying with environmentalists.

But are the bishops influencing their parishioners, or the other way around?  It is astonishing to discover, via Goodstein’s report, that some bishops “had received hate mail from Catholics skeptical of climate change,” which “has added to the bishops’ hesitation and confusion on the topic.” PRRI’s findings may well suggest that Catholic leadership could gain new perspective from the members of their flocks who, like Pope Francis, hail from a place where the urgency of addressing climate change hasn’t been squelched by political, business, and even religious demagoguery.