Swing state voters back pope's climate push - but not for moral reasons

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Voters in several swing states agree with Pope Francis’ call for global action to address climate change, but aren’t sold on it as an issue of morality.

A survey released Thursday from Quinnipiac University found 2:1 margins of support in Colorado (63 percent agree/31 percent disagree), Iowa (65/25) and Virginia (64/27) backing Francis’ message on climate change. Similar margins also said climate change is caused by human activity.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, pointed to “a big partisan split” among Democrats and Republicans in those states that led to the poll results. For instance, in Colorado 93 percent of Democrats concurred with Francis on the need to take climate action (with 3 percent disagreeing), but a majority of Republicans (53 percent) disagreed. Among independents, 61 percent agreed and 31 percent disagreed.

Republicans in Iowa -- where Catholic bishops have been vocal in urging voters bring the climate issue before visiting presidential candidates -- were more divided on the question, as 44 percent disagreed with the pope and 41 percent agreed. Similar numbers (46/42) appeared in Virginia. In both states, 69 percent of independents agreed with the pope on the need to address climate change.

"'People cause it, people should fix it,' Colorado voters say. In an environmentally conscious state, voters embrace Pope Francis' view that climate change is a clear and present danger that mankind is responsible for and must address," Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a press release.

But when asked whether or not the climate was a moral issue, the polled voters were less convinced. Half of voters in both Iowa and Virginia disagreed with the moral framing of climate change, while 44 percent agreed. In Colorado, 54 percent said climate change was not a moral issue, with 41 percent saying it was.

Related: "Preaching to the choir? Ahead of encyclical, global warming worries Catholics more than other Christians"

Since the mid-June release of Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” much of the messaging from Catholic and religious circles has attempted to stress the moral obligations of addressing not only climate change but of taking better care of the planet as a whole. That includes greater compassion toward each other’s neighbors, near and far, and how individual actions might affect them.

In the encyclical, Francis wrote, “If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn ‘realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty to­wards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.’ It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.”

Earlier in the document, he described climate change as “a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.

“Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and eco­systemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited,” the pope said.

The sentiments expressed in the three swing states, though, may not hold true for the country as a whole. A February poll of 2,800 Americans conducted by Reuters found 66 percent said world leaders have a moral obligation to take steps to reduce carbon emissions. In addition, 72 percent believed they were “personally morally obligated” to do their part in their own lives to reduce emissions.

A similar percentage (64 percent) in the Reuters poll to those found in the Quinnipiac survey said climate change is largely caused by human activity.

The three states polled by Quinnipiac account for 28 electoral votes. Each state has sided with the winning candidate in the last three presidential elections. But in the last four presidential elections no candidate has won any of the three states by double digits, and has not gained more than 54 percent of each’s popular vote (Barack Obama, in 2008, in Iowa and Colorado; George W. Bush, in 2004, in Virginia).

The Quinnipiac poll surveyed 1,236 voters in Iowa, 1,231 voters in Colorado and 1,209 voters in Virginia and carried a margin of error in each state of 2.8 +/- percentage points.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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