New PRRI Climate Survey Offers Insights into Faith and Climate Attitudes

On Friday, November 21st, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in partnership with the American Academy of Religion (AAR), released the results of a 3,000-person national survey in a report entitled “Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics.” This is a second blog examining this report. Whereas the first blog focused on insights related to the general public, this blog concentrates on the findings most relevant for faith communities.

Spiritual Experiences Matter but…

At first glance, the report presents welcome news for those inspired by their faith to lead on climate change solutions. One of its conclusions is that Americans who report a higher frequency of "spiritual experiences” are more likely to be concerned about climate change than their counterparts (55% vs. 41%). 

However, it's important to note that those scoring high on the survey’s “spiritual experience index” are not necessarily the people in the pews. For the purpose of the survey, a "spiritual" person is someone who responded positively to whether they 1) “experience a connection to all life,” 2) “feel deep inner peace or harmony,” 3) “feel a deep connection with nature and the earth,” and 4) “feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe.”

In other words, “spiritual experiences” are not necessarily based on one’s faith tradition or how often one participates in religious events such as services. 

How Concerned are the Faithful?

The survey provides a breakdown of climate concern by faith tradition. As a whole, climate concern for people of faith was below that of the general public or the unaffiliated. The survey found that 50% of the general public and 60% of the religiously unaffiliated are either “highly” or “somewhat” concerned about climate. This number compares to 43% of White Mainline Protestants, 41% of White Catholics, and 35% of White Evangelicals. 

Some faith communities, however, were more concerned about climate change than the general public. In a finding consistent with ecoAmerica's recent ACV 2014: Insights by Race and Ethnic Group Report, climate concern for Hispanic Catholics (73%) and Black Protestants (58%) exceeded the general public (50%), as did Jewish respondents by a slimmer margin (53%).

What’s the Hold Up?

As with other surveys, one of the greatest predictors of climate attitudes is political affiliation. Another factor is the perception that climate impacts are more likely to hurt developing nations than the U.S. For instance, only 25% of White Mainline Protestants, 24% of White Evangelicals, and 22% of White Catholics believe the U.S. will be substantially impacted by climate change. These numbers are even lower when people are asked if they will be personally impacted by climate change. 

Theological beliefs could also influence attitudes. Most Americans were more likely to attribute “recent weather disasters” to climate change than to “the end times” (62% vs. 49%), as were Catholics (62% vs. 43%) and White Mainline Protestants (61% vs. 35%). Conversely, 49% of Evangelicals attributed recent natural disasters to climate, compared to 77% who related them to “the end times.” 

The majority of Americans (57%) believe that humans have been given the task of living responsibly with animals, plants, and other resources as opposed to using them solely for own own benefit. This sentiment of stewardship is held by 68% of Jewish Americans, 66% of White Mainline Protestants, 66% of Hispanic Catholics, and 58% of White Catholics.

Despite the differences, there were some messages that cut across all faith traditions. In terms of justifications for protecting the environment, 89% felt meeting our responsibility to protect future generations was powerful, 88% found respecting and taking care of the earth compelling, and 85% were moved by the idea of preventing human harm. Protecting other species remains a solid, but smaller, majority at 75%. 

What Makes a Difference?

In a word, leadership. The survey found that when clergy speak about climate change their members are much more inclined to see it as a concern (62% vs. 39%). Lay leaders can also make a difference. Members of congregations that hosted events on the environment were similarly more likely to be concerned (57% vs. 44%).

Though this is welcome news, it is not happening in enough. Only just over a third of respondents (36%) say their clergy speaks of climate change “sometimes” or “often” and 69% say their congregations have not sponsored an event on climate change. This suggests that a great deal of potential remains untapped. 

So What? 

  1. There's work to be done – Though great strides are being made within faith communities and by organizations working on climate change, there remain many people of faith for whom climate change is not a central concern. 
  2. Leaders matter – As mentioned earlier, having clergy and lay leaders at the congregation level helping to connect the dots between faith and climate makes a big difference.
  3. Focus on solutions – Though people may not always agree on the causes of climate change, many of its solutions have widespread support. 
  4. Know your audience – Not all faith messages will resonate the same in every congregation. 
  5. Make it personal – Many people still see climate as something that will impact others, not themselves. Information on local impacts and local solutions are essential.

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