Interest in protecting environment up since Pope’s 2015 encyclical

  • New research into the usage of environmentally related search terms on Google suggests that interest in the environment has risen since Pope Francis released Laudato Si’ in 2015.
  • Laudato Si’, a papal encyclical, argues that it is a moral imperative for humans to look after the environment.
  • Researchers and scholars believe that the pope’s support for protecting the environment could ripple well beyond the 16 percent of the world’s population that is Catholic.

Just before Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, an encyclical, or formal letter from the pope, on the environment, on May 24, 2015, global concern for the environment seemed to be on the wane. Environmental scientist Malcolm McCallum had recently co-authored a paper that surmised as much, based on an analysis of Google search terms going back to the early 2000s.

“I threw in [the search term] ‘environment,’ and ‘environment’ was falling through the floor,” McCallum, an assistant professor at Langston University in Oklahoma, said in an interview. His findings jibed other recent studies on the publication of books and surveys of student attitudes.

But after the papal encyclical, which was subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” McCallum decided to take a second look at the Google Trends data, examining how people in dozens of countries around the world were using search terms like “conservation,” “biodiversity,” “climate change” and “pollution.”

Pope Francis, pictured here in 2014. Image by Jeffrey Bruno via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

McCallum’s analysis suggested a marked and sustained change in interest after the encyclical’s release.

“Sure enough, it shot through the roof,” he said. “I was actually very surprised.”

On May 20, days before the fourth anniversary of the release of Laudato Si’, McCallum published his findings in the journal Biological Conservation, covering the period from 2012 up through 2017.

Francis’s call to tackle environmental issues isn’t altogether new for the Roman Catholic Church. Though not a biblical scholar by training, McCallum found evidence that Catholic teaching may have encouraged an environmental movement in the 1900s. But neither such a full-throated pronouncement as the 2015 encyclical — nor the support it could provide to such movements — had happened before, he said.

A humpback whale sounds in the Gulf of Maine off the East Coast of the U.S. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The “game changer” in this letter was its codifying of environmental responsibility as part of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are “basically things that every practicing Catholic should be doing all the time,” McCallum said. “They’re really not flexible.”

The encyclical’s call to action centers on concern for fellow humans and what will happen if the destruction of the environment — for resources, for example, or through climate change as we continue to burn fossil fuels — is allowed to continue. “The pope argues for the moral obligation to look out for others,” McCallum said.

“They’re all impacted by the physical and biological environment you live in,” he added, “and I think that’s really what they’re bringing to light.”

Children survey dragonflies in Malaysian Borneo as part of a citizen science project. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

McCallum said he believes that the rising interest suggested by his data indicates that the pope’s words could be resonating beyond the 16 percent of the world’s population that is Catholic.

“These encyclicals that create paradigm shifts are very important within the church, and most of them influence outside the church,” he said. “If you go through and you look at news stories back as it was released and just afterward, everybody’s asking — is it going to matter? Does anyone really care what the pope thinks? Well, clearly, people apparently still do.”

The words of pontiffs have rippled far beyond the opinions of Catholics in the past, he said. Encyclicals condemning Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930s, Marxism in the 1980s, and abortion and birth control in the 1960s have all in part framed the way society looks at these issues. In the latter case, the stance on abortion became a defining issue in the U.S. political system just a few years after Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968.

A mother gorilla and her baby in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Catholic scholars agree that Francis’s support for the environmental movement of today could have a similar impact.

“The pope doesn’t expect this movement to just be a Catholic thing,” Robert Mickens, English editor of the Catholic newspaper La Croix International in Rome, told Justin Catanoso, reporting for Mongabay in 2017. “What is extraordinary about the encyclical is that it is a project that the whole human race can engage in together. What unites all of humanity? The environment. It’s our common home; our common interest.”

McCallum points to evidence, such as the Youth Climate Strikes on the first Friday of the Catholic season of Lent, backing up the increased interest he’s been able to divine from the Google search data. As a scientist accustomed to finding evidence for bad news, whether showing the vertebrate extinction crisis in 2015 or the global decline in amphibians, finding a renewed interest in reversing such trends represents a positive shift for McCallum.

“It made me very happy,” he said.

Banner image of peat forest being burned in Indonesia by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay. 


McCallum, M. L. (2019). Perspective: Global country-by-country response of public interest in the environment to the papal encyclical, Laudato Si’. Biological Conservation, 235, 209–225. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.04.010

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