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Why the Climate Movement Needs a Green Pope, and a Super Voucher

Climate Justice

ROME—On my first visit to Vatican City, before my meeting with Michelangelo, I greeted the Pope via the city’s ubiquitous souvenir stands. I love this stuff. You can try on the “Papa Francisco” kitchen apron and imagine the pontiff’s smile beaming over your Spaghetti Bolognese. Or gently joggle the pate of a Pope Francis bobble-head. Postcards are everywhere, of course. And for €10 you can score the annual “Hot Priests Calendar,” featuring hunky young men of the cloth. In this “G-rated” feature, priests from all over the world help promote the Eternal City and breathe into the Catholic brand a wisp of hipness, to say nothing of hotness.

But back to the Pope. This week Pope Francis released the much anticipated encyclical on the environment and climate change. And there’s a connection between that, the souvenir aprons, and even the hot priests. I’ll leave it to others to examine the language of this compelling and lyrical document. Suffice it to say that, in terms of substance, the edict says nothing we don’t already know. For a generation, experts and activists have hammered the shackles of climate, pollution, and poverty within earshot of anyone willing to hear. What is new—and very exciting—is that now the head of the Roman Catholic Church, an extremely popular and charismatic figure, is calling out this injustice and demanding that world leaders take action.

Psychologists and communications experts refer to figures like Pope Francis as “vouchers”—well-known individuals so liked and respected by others that they can successfully “vouch” for large, complicated ideas and persuade them to take action. All those trinkets at the Vatican souvenir stands, intentionally or not, contribute to this overall effect by transmitting the message that Pope Francis and all those sharp-looking priests are accessible, personable, and, above all trustworthy.

The climate movement desperately needs vouchers of this kind. Environmentalists have spent too much time trying to convince people to care about climate change by just teaching them stuff. If we only knew more about chemistry and atmospheric physics, they suggest, about power curves and the scientific method, we would see that carbon pollution is even more odious than Ebola or the Common Core Curriculum and demand that something be done. But that’s not how people work.

Most people, research confirms, do not evaluate risks on their own. They rely on vouchers to point them in the right direction. On topics that are emotionally charged, emotions and values will help determine whom you trust. One study, which examined respondent’s reaction to information about a controversial vaccine against a sexually transmitted virus, suggested that individuals are more likely to believe scientific medical evidence when the physical appearance of the communicating expert matches their cultural outlook. (People comfortable with social hierarchy like gray-haired men in suits; egalitarians dig beards and denim shirts.)

The challenge with climate change is that the relevant audience is so vast. It is not enough to call upon the local rabbi, family doctor, or school teacher to resonate with community values. The situation demands a spokesperson who is both universally known and universally trusted—a kind of “super voucher.” In today’s splintered media, super vouchers are in very short supply. Most recently, we’ve been making do with people like Bill Nye The Science Guy and the celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. But who appeals to the non-dweeb?

Pope Francis, who at this early stage is now almost as popular as John Paul II was at his height, may fit that bill. It is true that his encyclical will probably have little effect on anyone, Catholic or otherwise, who has already staked out an ideological position. (Witness the flock of Republican presidential candidates, official and unofficial, backing away from this Pope’s theology.)  But polls show that in the United States and elsewhere there is a big group of undecided folks, people who have not thought seriously about climate change and who are eminently persuadable. Those are the sheep this shepherd is after.

Time will tell if the Church’s “superman Pope” can morph into the planet’s next “super voucher.” But he has the right package. Personable, trustworthy, and able to light up the Twittersphere, this man of the cloth is hot indeed.

See my upcoming article, Culture, Cognition, and Climate, which expands on this topic. 

Climate Justice

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