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Could the Pope’s Encyclical Push Public Opinion to Tipping Point on Climate? By Nancy Vosnidou

In the wake of last week’s release by Pope Francis of a radically comprehensive encyclical on the scientific causes and effects as well as the social, economic, and moral implications of climate change, PLOS BLOGS invited biophysicist-turned science communicator Nancy Vosnidou to examine its approach and scope from a science communications perspective. Read Nancy’s complete bio at the bottom of this post. Your comments are invited!    — Victoria Costello, PLOS Senior Social Media & Communities Editor

By Nancy Vosnidou

“When yet no gods were manifest,
nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
then gods were born within them.” – Enuma Elish, Babylonian creation myth (Dalley translation, 1991)

For the majority of human history, the distinction between religion and science has been irrelevant. Spirituality, morality, and nature were all interwoven concepts fundamentally connected to the daily experiences of life. Gods were nature, and nature was the assembly of gods. Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Luadato Si’, unexpectedly reminded us that we have diminished, even forgotten, this connection.

Image by Aleteia Image Partners, Flickr

It is not coincidental that across mythologies of all cultures, a great percentage of religious pantheons are devoted to figures concerning climate and weather, inextricably linked to the successes and failures of crop harvests and fertility. Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, weather events are a recurrent language of connectivity between the Divine and humanity: wrath is demonstrated through events like a great flood, benevolence is demonstrated through the abundance of crops resulting from good weather.

Over time, as humans attributed more of their experiences to knowable phenomena, and began to control more of their environments to influence their own destinies, science and religion evolved such that the purposes of each diverged to address different aspects of the human experience. In broad strokes, science became the language to answer “how”, religion to answer “why”.

Catholicism and Science: It’s Complicated

The historical relationship between the now divergent science and religion, especially in Western society, is storied and complicated. Sometimes a supporter of the sciences, sometimes a suppressor of “heretical” philosophies, the Catholic Church has often been vocal about scientific topics ranging from relationship between the sun and the earth, to evolution. There are many examples of papal positions during recent history, which attempted to reconcile scientific truths with a spiritual rightness. For example, Pope Leo XIII in 1893 issued the Providentissimus Deus encyclical which stated “true science cannot contradict scripture”, particularly addressing the apparent discrepancy between Biblical writings and the geological and evolutionary evidence of the earth’s age. Over one hundred years later, Pope John Paul II wrestled with the same issue, and nudged the Church closer to evolution as an accepted Church position, by the “recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis” (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 1996, a continuation of theological thought of his predecessor Pope Pius XII).

And now, climate change.

What makes Pope Francis’ communication on this particular topic, at this particular time, so influential, more a part of current popular media conversations than data from scientists? Particularly in an era when, arguably, the Church has less perceived authority as a moral dictator, than at any other time in history.

It would be too facile to attribute the influence of this Pope’s climate change stance as the inevitable result of a religious leader’s pronouncement about a moral imperative. We can speculate that climate change may be personal to him. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew up in a country profoundly connected to agriculture, which is directly impacted by variabilities in weather and long-term shifts in climate. It is a comparable personal connection to what we saw with Pope John Paul II, whose experiences in Poland under Communist rule certainly influenced him as a global political leader, enabling his voice to be as influential as even Margaret Thatcher, during the Cold War. In both cases there is a personal investment in the outcome of the issue.

Speaking of “Mother Earth” specifically in his most recent encyclical Luadato si’, Pope Francis laments that “This Sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The state of the earth and the changes brought about by human actions affect him personally, and he makes it personal to each of us with the language he uses.

Pope Francis also has a demonstrated ability, as a communicator, to connect on a personal level with people outside of his core demographic. The Catholic faith has traditionally been at odds with what in America are issues aligned with liberal political viewpoints: divorce, abortion, gay marriage. The last decade has seen additional strife in the Church with priest abuse scandals, and accusations of being out of touch with the modern world. This Pope has laid the foundation of trust with even non-Catholics, by acknowledging the gravity of the Church’s scandals, personally participating in social justice initiatives such as feeding the poor, supporting positions related to global economic equality, and even posing for selfies with groups of teenagers. He has made himself more personable and relatable than any Pope in recent memory.

Image by, Flickr

Even with his apparent personal interest in climate change, and his charisma and trustworthiness as a communicator, how he has had more success with this particular message than the subject matter experts who have been beating the climate change drums for years?

It isn’t simply that for once, a Church’s official pronouncement aligns with global scientific consensus (such as The White House 2014 National Climate Assessment). His encyclical is unusual, in that it describes mechanisms of action for both the causes and effects of climate change, discussing for example part of carbon cycling: “carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain”, and noting “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases”.

It’s almost like reading a review article on the current state of global climate theory.

SciComm Lessons for Scientists

But that doesn’t explain the popularity and willingness of large groups of people to listen, and in fact may on the surface seem counter-intuitive as a strategy since it is a position both at odds with part of the American conservative Christian faction, and communicated by a non-subject matter expert. It is of minimal importance that Pope Francis studied chemistry prior to entering seminary – probably influencing his appreciation for scientific approaches, but it is not his experience as a scientist that makes him a good science communicator.

No, I would argue, it is that the leader of one of the largest religious factions on the planet weighing in on climate change brings back together the most fundamental aspects of human existence, merging the divergent paths of religion and science back into one. It’s about connecting humanity, not just Catholic Christians, to something primal and spiritual.

All Things Bright And Beautiful

Pope Francis did not make a casual choice with the words “Mother Earth”. He understands that effective calls to action must include a connection to the deepest parts of our spirituality, more primal than any one religion. It’s why he has been more successful in engaging nonscientists about the issues of this particular scientific topic, than all the experts and graphs and data in the world.

The Pope did not impart his official opinions on climate change as a religious dictator handing down a proclamation to be implemented by his faithful without question. He used his personal passion, connecting thoughts across cultures and religions (quoting, in fact, a ninth century Sufi poet), laying a foundation of trust, and bridging the spiritual and human aspects of what climate change means, the why and the how, from one human to another.

It’s a fundamental lesson for scientists – whether at the dinner table explaining to your dad what you do, or in front of an audience talking about hot issues like vaccination safety, or writing a review article for a popular science magazine. The people whom we are attempting to reach, and ultimately influence, are not a faceless group of non-scientists, to whom we pontificate and expect belief based on our authority. The public does not generally lack sufficient facts from which to form opinions (the deficit model of science communication), they lack a reason to care that their opinions are factually sound.

We need to tell our stories with humanity, with passion, from a relationship of trust. We need to remind nonscientists that in many ways, science and spirituality are still part of each other: it is our job as scientists and science communicators to connect the why with the how.

Vosnidou_HeadshotDr. Nancy Vosnidou received her doctorate in biophysics and spent many years in the medical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural fields. She is a professional science communicator who works with companies and nonprofits to make science relevant to different audiences ( She is also a classically trained violinist and enjoys playing with a community symphony, and a mom of two daughters who won’t let her help with their school science projects. On Twitter @SciCommServices

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