Liberals, Conservatives, and the Climate Change Conundrum

Why are Liberals more concerned about Climate Change than Conservatives?

By Benedikt Loula, GLOBUS Correspondent

The central issue for the environmental movement has always been the inability to reach a political consensus. In recent decades, we have seen liberals trying to position themselves as guardians of the environment, whilst conservatives tend to be reluctant or, even opposed to, eco-friendly policies. It seems like one party perceives the problem in moral terms, whereas the other does not. And rightfully so. Perhaps, the current environmental rhetoric is not made for the conservative ear. Maybe, if we frame the issue differently, it might help to get conservatives on board. But before we start to discuss this ambitious project, let me just clarify a few things.  

Research carried out in this area does not use a specific definition of the term ‘liberal’. The studies mentioned in this article have been carried out across various cultures, so it includes participants all the way from the US to the Middle East. Usually, the participants filled in a questionnaire that included a single-term measure of political ideology ranging from 1 (extremely liberal) to 7 (extremely conservative) (Feinberg & Willer 2013). Furthermore, the research is not sufficiently conclusive since the argument rests partially on the premise that ‘moral convictions and the emotions they evoke shape political attitudes’, which is yet to be corroborated by further evidence. 

With such a disclaimer out of the way, let us jump down the rabbit hole and peer into the mechanism underlying our moral judgments. 

The human mind involves several interrelated moral principles. That is why so often you hear the term ‘moral reasoning’ which means having the ability to identify moral principles and contrast them with one another. Moral-foundations researchers have found evidence for 5 fundamental domains of human morality (Haidt & Josephs, 2004) which they labeled : 

  1. “harm/care” – caring for and protecting of other people 
  1. “fairness/reciprocity” – treating other people fairly and upholding justice 
  1. “in-group/loyalty” – preserving group membership and loyalty  
  1. “authority/respect” – promoting hierarchy, obedience, and duty  
  1. “purity/sanctity” –  embracing purity and sacredness  

Interestingly enough, animals display the very same moral domains, except for the concept of purity/sanctity. Nevertheless, recent research has demonstrated that liberals and conservatives possess different moral profiles regarding the five moral foundations (Graham et al., 2009). Overall, the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity domains were more prevalent among liberals. Conversely, conservatives endorse in-group/loyalty, authority/ respect, and purity/sanctity more than liberals do.  

Now, based on this research, we may infer why these two groups rarely agree on climate change. As each group inhabits different moral domains, it might seem like the two groups are talking past each other, causing the moral framing of climate change to often become catered to liberal rather than conservative intuitions. To illustrate, the two most cited impacts of climate change are directly linkable to liberal-specific domains (Markowitz et. al, 2012): 

Impact #1: Harm to present and future generations = harm/care 

Impact #2: Unfairness of the distribution of the burdens caused by climate change = fairness and reciprocity 

As one can see, there is no treat for a conservative-minded person. The environment discourse underlines liberal moral intuitions, yet it omits conservative ones. This crucial distinction already foreshadows an avalanche of further political polarization. When liberals target conservatives for being apathetic to climate change, the other side of the political spectrum meets them with puzzlement and confusion. Individually, conservatives regard these claims as unjustified and, as a group, they politically solidify their indifference. 

Hence, if we want to take conservatives on board, we have to engage with their moral framework. One study by Feinberg & Weiler (2012) does precisely that. Participants in this study were given articles related to climate change, however, their overall tone related to a conservative principle of purity/sanctity. For instance, they read about “how polluted and contaminated the environment has become and how important it is for people to clean and purify the environment”. This yielded some very interesting results, with exposure to purity/sanctity messages inducing greater disgust among conservative participants. In fact, in this study, both conservative and liberal participants reported similar levels of pro-environmental attitude after reading the purity/sanctity message. Hence, there might be a glimmer of hope for a democratic consensus on climate change. 

Whilst the current medialised discourse on environmental issues is likely to feed social animosity, reframing the issue in different moral terms offers one way to improve communication between opposing sides. It is hard to say why reframing was so successful in Feinberg’s study. It might be the case that messages based on moral domains endorsed by the recipient are more credible and logical to the recipient. Alternatively, the reframed messages may lead readers to perceive the source of the message as someone who is similar to them, someone like a fellow conservative. One way or another, it is a great lesson in humility. When discussing a political topic, we have to be acutely aware that individuals perceive the very same problem through different moral lenses.  

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

References: 

  1. Feinberg, M. & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62. 
  1. Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029–1046. 
  1. Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133, 55–66. 
  1. Markowitz, E.M., & Shariff, A.F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. 

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