How to “Spin” Conservatives Into Worrying About the Environment

According to the polls conservatives have become less concerned
about environmental issues than liberals. In 1992, reports the Pew
Foundation, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans
agreed that “there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to
protect the environment.” In 2012, however, Democratic support for
more environmental regulation hadn’t dropped while Republican
support had fallen to just 47 percent. The Pew pollsters concluded,
“Views on the importance of environmental protection have arguably
been the most pointed area of polarization.” In another poll, the
Pew Research Center reports that
85 percent of Democrats believe that there is solid evidence for
man-made global warming whereas only 48 percent of Republicans
believe so.Why is the gap on environmental issues between liberals and
conservatives growing? A new study in the journal Psychological
Science, “The
Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” by Stanford University
sociologist Matthew Feinberg and University of California Berkeley
social psychologist Robb Willer argue that, in part, it’s because
liberals and conservatives differ in their moral views with regard
to the natural environment. Feinberg and Willer claim that liberals
regard the environment in moral terms whereas conservatives do not.
They then go on to suggest a rhetorical strategy for getting
conservatives to moralize the environment.The two researchers apply moral foundations theory
developed by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt
and his colleagues to their analysis. Haidt proposes that most
ethical thinking is intuitive and rests on six evolved
psychological/emotional foundations: (1) care/harm; (2)
fairness/cheating: (3) liberty/oppression; (4) loyalty/betrayal;
(5) authority/subversion; (6) sanctity/degradation. (An earlier
column of mine, “The
Science of Libertarian Morality” reported some of Haidt’s
findings, and his article, “Born This
Way,” was the cover of Reason’s April 2012 issue.)
Feinberg and Willer apply an earlier version of moral foundations
theory that does not include the liberty/oppression dimension.Haidt’s research finds that liberals and conservatives have
different moral profiles when it comes to the five moral
foundations. Liberals score higher on the care/harm and
fairness/cheating dimensions whereas conservatives tend to score
more equally on all five dimensions. Feinberg and Willer conducted
five different studies to probe the salience of this insight. In
their first study, nearly 190 subjects were asked about their
ideological views ranging from extremely liberal to extremely
conservative. Then they were read three vignettes about a person
eating lunch. In one he recycles his plastic water bottle, in
another he does not; in the control, the bottle is not mentioned.
The participants were then asked how moral they thought the guy
was. Conservatives basically didn’t think he was any more or less
moral in any version of the story, whereas liberals rated him
significantly less moral when he chucks the bottle into the
garbage.In a second study, about 500 undergraduates again rated their
ideology and then were asked how important it was to behave in an
environmentally friendly way on a six point scale. Finally, they
were asked to write a couple sentences explaining their answers.
More often than conservatives, liberals used moral terms to justify
concerns about the environment. Willer and Feinberg concluded that
these studies “support our claim that liberals but not
conservatives view environmental issues in moral terms and that
this helps explain liberals’ stronger proenvironmental views.”Why do liberals see environmental issues in moral terms? To find
out, the two researchers conducted two studies. The first winnowed
through professionally made videos lasting no more than
two minutes with at least 10,000 views using search terms
global warming, pollution, climate
change, environmentalism, environment, and
environmentalist. The second study identified 402
newspaper op-eds printed from January 2009 through March 2011 in
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and
USA Today containing keywords environment,
climate change, global warming, or
pollution. Coders blind to the study hypothesis rated on a
seven point scale the extent to which each video and op-ed was
grounded in the five moral domains. “Content analysis of
environmental rhetoric from both video and print media revealed
that such rhetoric resides primarily with the harm/care domain,”
report the researchers. This (over)emphasis on the harm/care moral
domain might thus account for “the stronger proenvironmental
attitudes of liberals relative to conservatives.”So how might conservatives be persuaded to moralize the
environment? In their final study, Feinberg and Willer next had
more than 300 subjects score their ideology and then randomly
exposed them to three different narratives. The control narrative
was a history of neckties. The other two were crafted around
harm/care and purity/sanctity moral concerns. The harm/care message
focused on the damage humans are causing and emphasized the need to
protect the Earth, accompanied by pictures showing a clear cut, a
barren coral reef, and a drought-cracked mudflat. The
sanctity/purity message described the contamination of the
environment and stressed the importance of purifying the natural
world, accompanied by pictures of air pollution, a person drinking
contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage. Participants
then were asked about their attitudes with regard to how important
it is to protect the environment; their support for environmental
legislation; and their belief that humans are causing global
warming.Conservatives were significantly less concerned about the
environment than liberals in both the control and harm/care
conditions. However, there was no statistically significant
difference in pro-environmental attitudes between liberals and
conservatives exposed to the purity/sanctity message. The
researchers found that the purity/sanctity message provoked the
moral emotion of disgust in conservative study participants
boosting their concern about the environment. Therefore, the
authors conclude that their “results suggest that political
polarization around environmental issues is not inevitable but can
be reduced by crafting proenvironmental arguments that resonate
with the values of American conservatives.” They add, “The current
research suggests that reframing environmental issues in different
moral terms offers one way to improve communications between
opposing sides.”The central question not answered by the study is why are
environmental issues moralized in the first place? Moralizing
issues takes them out of the realm of trade-offs, costs, and
compromise and puts them in the polarized domain of right and
wrong. For an environmental moralist, asking how much it costs to

save the endangered Delhi sandfly or an old growth forest is
like being asked how much it would take to sell their kids. It’s a
kind of blasphemy. Morality is meant to trump any considerations of
trade-offs and costs. The background assumption of this study is
that environmental issues are in fact moral concerns.For example, study co-author Willer
said, “Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and
persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will
need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to
deal effectively with climate change, in particular.” This
highlights the fact that the implicit goal of the research is to
figure out how better to propagandize conservatives into accepting
liberal environmentalist policy goals. Assuming that man-made
climate change is a significant problem, trying to enlist people
into a moral crusade to impose “significant environmental reforms”
like cap-and-trade carbon rationing is not necessarily the best way
to deal with it. Moral foundations theory is correct that we are
all differentially motivated by moral intuitions, but I believe
that real moral progress has been steadily made and more firmly
grounded by the application of reason to facts.Aware of the implications of his study, Willer told the

SF Weekly, “I think this speaks to the dangers and promise
of propaganda—that there [are] ways of presenting issues that are
more effective. Strategically reframing an issue … could be canny
moral strategy or a dangerous political weapon.”Of course, what one person sees as a canny strategy is another’s


How to “Spin” Conservatives Into Worrying About the Environment

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