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Debating the Pope: Social Scientists Engage Pope’s Call for Climate Change Dialogue in Top Journal

September 24, 2015

Pope Francis made an evocative call to address the dual problems of environmental degradation and human exploitation. Photo credit: Alfredo Borba.
Pope Francis made an evocative call to address the dual problems of environmental degradation and human exploitation. Photo credit: Alfredo Borba.

In Pope Francis’ nearly 200-page climate change encyclical, Laudato SI, published earlier this year, he explicitly calls for a “dialogue with all people about our common home.” 

A group of leading social scientists provide a scholarly foundation for that dialogue in a special series of commentaries published online this week in Nature Climate Change.

The collection of prominent voices, including environmental sociologist Robert J. Brulle, PhD, a professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, acknowledge that the manifesto, while an important in step in inspiring people to acknowledge the depth of the climate change problem and act collectively, is not without limitations. The statements come as Pope Francis meets with President Obama and other political leaders in his first visit to the US.

In his essay, Brulle and co-author Robert Antonio, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Kansas, praise the Pope for taking on those that “distort, obscure or dismiss” the science of climate change. They contend that the Church must continue to encourage powerful institutions to overcome restrictive ideas of political neutrality and “to act collectively and justly” when faced with this great social problem.

But the authors also urge the inclusion of social science perspectives in this effort. “We need to muster all of our intellectual capabilities to address our perilous ecological situation and to realize a wider vision of the aims of climate change research,” the authors wrote. They go on to recommend that the Vatican and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) reach out and include these intellectual communities in their efforts. The authors also advise social scientists to engage in this effort more fully.

Brulle recently co-edited a new book on this subject, produced by the American Sociological Association's Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change. Entitled “Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives” (Oxford University Press, Sept. 2015), the book breaks new ground by presenting climate change as a thoroughly social phenomenon, embedded in behaviors, institutions and cultural practices. It is available from the publisher and from

Likewise, the other essays continue to acknowledge that the Pope has worthwhile things to say about climate change while highlighting items that have been overlooked and advising on next steps.

Ecologists Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, and John Harte, a professor at University of California – Berkeley, argue that Pope Francis overlooks the stresses a burgeoning population will put on the world’s resources. “Pope Francis needs to heed his own comments on the Church’s ‘obsession’ with contraception and abortion, and assume a leadership position in support of women’s rights and family planning”, otherwise “there is little chance that the existential challenge facing humanity will be met.”

Sociologist Erik Olin Wright, a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, states that it is implausible for society to rely on political leaders to undergo a moral conversion when faced with tackling climate change. He writes that while the Pope correctly identifies the need for a cultural transformation in people’s relationship with nature, this must go hand in hand with challenges to current dominant power structures.

Economist Ottmar Edenhofer, professor of the economics of climate change at the TU Berlin - Berlin Institute of Technology, and colleagues welcome Pope Francis’s efforts to equate action to mitigate climate change with protecting the world’s poorest citizens. But this requires challenging powerful economic interests such as the fossil fuel industry, they write, while acknowledging the climate is a common good for all.

Anabela Carvalho, associate professor at the Department of Communication Sciences of the University of Minho, Portugal, calls the Pope’s encyclical a “decisive democratic act”. She emphasizes that the Pope’s words must be used to motivate “the 99 percent” to challenge consumerist culture, and calls for a fundamental shift in how governments approach climate change.

“In a way, the Pope’s encyclical offers a model for how this can be done. It serves as an example of how academic research can feed into the social agenda, and hints at the role the social sciences can play in helping to shape, translate, and progress the conversation. It draws on established research to deliver a message that is at once both conciliatory and motivating, bridging a long-established divide between religion and science in the process. In this sense, at least, the Pope’s call for action on climate change contains a lesson for all.”

Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, and past chair of the American Sociological Association's Section on Environment & Technology. He is author of “Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The U.S. Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective” and co-editor of “Power, Justice and the Environment.” He was a 2012-2013 fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Brulle’s previous research has examined the sources of funding behind the climate change countermovement. His study, published in Climactic Change in 2013, marked the first peer-reviewed, comprehensive analysis ever conducted of the sources of funding that maintain the denial effort. This study is part one of a three-part project by Brulle to examine the climate movement in the U.S. at the national level. The next step in the project is to examine the environmental movement or the climate change movement. Brulle will then compare the whole funding flow to the entire range of organizations on both sides of the debate.