Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

One of the biggest developments in years in the climate debate occurred Thursday, as the leader of over 1 billion global Catholics took a powerful stand in favor of strong climate action — and did so on behalf of the world’s poor.

In the U.S. context, the core question now becomes how this affects domestic political dynamics, especially while several Catholic Republicans are running for president — and when one, Jeb Bush, was just chided by a top cardinal, Peter Turkson, for claiming to separate his faith from the political decisions he makes.

[Top cardinal says Jeb Bush is wrong about the link between faith and politics]

According to a new survey analysis, there could be substantial receptivity to the pope’s message even among Catholics who are members of today’s GOP, well known for housing strong climate change skepticism.

“I think the big message is that not only is Pope Francis’s encyclical likely to fall on sensitive ears around the world and within the United States, but even within the Republican Party,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which released the new data Friday along with its partner group at George Mason University.

Culling information from six national polls taken over the period from 2012 through 2015, the Yale and George Mason teams looked in particular at Catholic Republicans and how their climate views stood out within their own party.

The result was that even in a party known for its climate change skepticism, this group appeared less skeptical of climate science and more in favor of climate action.

[Republican presidential hopefuls on the hot seat, thanks to Pope Francis]

Most notably, the research found, 51 percent of Catholic Republicans, but just 42 percent of non-Catholic Republicans, agreed that global warming is happening – an ever so slight majority:


Yale/George Mason centers for Climate Change Communication.

By a smaller margin, 36 percent of Catholic Republicans — versus just 30 percent of the rest of the party — accepted the phenomenon’s predominantly human causation. Catholic Republicans were also somewhat more likely than non-Catholic ones to agree that there’s a scientific consensus on global warming and to support various kinds of policies to address the problem, the research found.

“These differences between Catholics and non-Catholics are unique to Republicans; that is, we see far fewer differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Democrats and Independents on these issues,” noted the researchers.

Indeed, even among “conservative” Republicans — who are generally shifted still further in the direction of climate skepticism and denial — the difference appeared, the Yale and George Mason research found. Among conservative Catholic Republicans, 42 percent agreed global warming is happening, versus just 35 percent among non-Catholic conservative Republicans, the researchers reported.

It’s important not to get too dramatic about these data — while a slim majority of Catholic Republicans do seem to agree global warming is happening, considerably fewer accept the scientific consensus on its human causation (which the pope just affirmed).

Still, Leiserowitz thinks these small differences could be politically significant in the context of this campaign season and beyond.

“It does suggest that there are going to be people within the party receptive to this message, and who may even be willing to bring the conversation into Republican circles,” he says.

Thanks to the Pope’s intervention — triggering intense media coverage and several newsworthy GOP candidate statements — that conversation has already begun.

Also in Energy & Environment:

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Alaska’s glaciers are now losing 75 billion tons of ice every year

Google just created a stunning visualization of how the world searches for ‘global warming’

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