The Secret to Making Conservatives Care About Climate Change

New research says environmentalists should frame their arguments in ways that will appeal to other people’s values.
(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)
Apr 29, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Environmentalists are, by and large, idiots when it comes to talking with the people who disagree with us. We go on (and on) about fairness, about injustice, about caring. We are outraged. We are gloomy. Everything is going extinct, and it’s because of that company you work for or that hamburger you’re eating. And, sure, everything does seem to be going extinct, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But people just tune us out.

Is there a better way? A way that might persuade ranchers to think differently about wolves, for instance? Or that might persuade conservatives to acknowledge the reality of climate change? Is there a way that might intrigue our political counterparts instead of just antagonizing them?

The good news, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is that conservatives might not at heart have any real issue with protecting the environment. The bad news? What they are rejecting is us, our tone and tenor, and our self-righteous way of always framing environmental questions “in ideological and moral terms that hold greater appeal for liberals and egalitarians.” That may help affirm our in-group status as environmentalists. But it almost obliges our counterparts to reject our ideas as a way of asserting their in-group credentials as conservatives.

Lead author Christopher Wolsko, a social psychologist at Oregon State University–Cascades, set out to test what happens when you frame the same issues in conservative terms instead. First Wolsko and his coauthors characterized the political perspective of test subjects based on their responses to a few questions about capital punishment, abortion, gun control, socialized health care, and same-sex marriage.

Then they tested their response to an issue presented with two distinctly different kinds of “moral framing.” A conservative version might talk about “love of country,” “joining the fight,” “taking pride,” “performing one’s civic duty,” and “honoring all of Creation.” The liberal counterpart might instead emphasize “love for all of humanity,” “fair access to a sustainable environment,” and “preventing the suffering of all life forms.”

And, duh, the conservatives liked the first version better. More important, it also made them more likely to be concerned about climate change and even to donate a portion of the compensation they received for participating in the study to a randomly selected environmental group.

After reading the study, one temptation might be to sprinkle your pitch with conservative buzzwords when talking with conservatives. The study notes that “moral judgments are strongly driven by automatic processes” and that “as little as two sentences pronouncing the patriotic significance of being pro-environmental can have substantial attitudinal and behavioral effects.” Even adding a peripheral cue, such as an American flag in the foreground of a scenic landscape, can help induce that change.

But that kind of cynical spin is what has gotten us into our present polarized political standoff, said Wolsko, with everybody “narrow-casting” their message “and people all hearing what they want to hear from whom they want to hear it.” A better approach, he said, is to make a sincere effort to look at an issue from your adversary’s perspective. “It’s about inclusivity, broadening our values, not just persuading conservatives that they need to be more like liberals in terms of the things they value,” he said.

Just as an experiment, I asked an environmentalist I know how he might feel about presenting an issue in terms of obeying authority, defending the purity of nature, and demonstrating patriotism. Sounds like the Nazis, he said. But honestly, is it that much of a stretch to think about environmental issues in terms of respect for good leadership or the sacredness of nature or love of country? Are the things conservatives and liberals want always so different?

The whole discussion put me in mind of a phone call an environmentalist lawyer named Fred Krupp made in the fall of 1988 to a conservative multimillionaire named Boyden Gray, who was about to become White House counsel to the then president-elect, George H.W. Bush. Bush had pledged to become the “environmental president,” to general ridicule from environmentalists. Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, not only took him at his word but also laid out a conservative way to do it.

The pressing issue then was acid rain, mainly produced by power plant emissions. It was causing massive damage to forests and lakes and human health. But the standard remedy—government regulators ordering utilities to install scrubbers—was likely to cost $100 million per plant, and it was certain to provoke lawsuits. Instead, said Krupp, why not have the government just put a steadily decreasing cap on the total emissions allowed each year? Then let the utilities figure out on their own how to meet that cap, with the help of free-market “emissions trading.” That is, some companies might choose to install scrubbers immediately and then sell their annual emissions allowance on the open market. Other companies might want to delay the capital expenditure for a few years and meanwhile purchase allowances to cover their excess emissions—but they couldn’t delay indefinitely, because the allowances would just get more expensive as the overall cap decreased.

Many environmentalists were predictably horrified. They accused EDF of proposing “a right to pollute.” But the Bush administration latched on to this capitalist approach, and over the next two decades what became known as cap-and-trade cut acid rain emissions in half, producing huge benefits for the environment and for human health, at a fraction of the predicted cost. Krupp and EDF had committed the environmental heresy of talking to a Republican White House, and in conservative Republican terms, and it worked.

That’s a model the rest of us should keep in mind as we address the many persistent environmental problems that, whether or not we like to admit it, affect all of us, liberals and conservatives alike, as one people.