Faith, Morality and the Environment

Faith, Morality and the Environment

Report Summary

Over the course of 2015, we witnessed an evolution in public discourse on global warming. Typically discussed in the news media solely as a scientific, environmental or political issue, global warming is now being reframed as a moral and spiritual issue by religious leaders – most notably by Pope Francis. Americans are now hearing – often for the first time – that global warming will have severe impacts on the world’s poor; that it violates divine dictates on the treatment of nature; and that it requires a concerted response from all nations in the name of social justice and God’s will.

To explore Americans’ receptivity to a moral framing, in Spring 2015, before the Pope’s encyclical and visit to the U.S., we assessed the religious and spiritual values and beliefs of Global Warming’s Six Americas, six groups within the American public with very different views on global warming. We found that most Americans at the time did not view global warming as a moral issue. Only the most concerned groups – the Alarmed and Concerned – viewed global warming as a moral issue, and only the Alarmed viewed it as an issue of social justice or poverty. Less than a third of any segment said global warming is a spiritual or religious issue, and 40 percent said that their views on the issue reflected their core moral values only slightly or not at all.

Values and beliefs that are widely held among Americans, however, suggest that a moral framing of global warming could resonate with many people currently unconcerned about the issue. For example, most Americans believe that caring for the poor, the environment and future generations is important, but fewer understand that reducing global warming will help all three. Most Americans believe that humans should be stewards, rather than rulers of nature, and levels of environmental concern are relatively high.

Together, the results suggest that many Americans in the less engaged segments hold values that are consistent with a moral or religious argument for climate action. The communication of a moral perspective on global warming by religious leaders such as Pope Francis may therefore reach segments of the U.S. public that have yet to engage with the issue.

This report describes the moral, religious and spiritual perspectives of each of Global Warming’s Six Americas. A prior report: “The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis changed the conversation about global warming” describes how the views of Americans overall shifted after the release of the Pope’s encyclical and visit to the U.S.