How do you get conservatives to care about climate change? Study finds it’s not easy

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The protection of planet Earth shouldn’t be a political issue, but the debate surrounding climate change often seems to break down along party lines. It’s no secret that conservatives are generally less likely to adopt a “green” attitude, but new research shows that it will be even more difficult than many might think to convince conservatives that climate action is necessary.

Beyond just the singular topic of climate change, conservatives and Republicans are generally unlikely to change their behaviors and beliefs, usually sticking to a fairly rigid set of traditions or “binding morals.” While prior studies have suggested that appealing to conservatives using their own morals and values in pro-environmental messages may make them more likely to adopt pro-environmental values and practices, new research conducted in New Zealand found no such evidence to support this claim.

“Notably, research indicates that liberals and conservatives make moral judgements based on different sets of moral foundations,” study authors explain in a media release. “Whereas more liberal people tend to rely on individualizing morals which value individuals’ rights and justices with empathetic motivation, more conservative people tend to rely on binding morals, which value in-group loyalty, purity, order, and conventions.”

Climate change protest
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This project followed open science practices, such as ensuring the data analysis plan was available before data collection took place, and providing access to materials, datasets, and analytical codes. Ultimately, researchers from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Waikato discovered that participants were equally as responsive to the “adapted” pro-environmental messages that brought up either loyalty, authority, or purity (for example, “Preserving that purity is important. We should regard the pollution of the places we live in to be disgusting.”) as they were to more traditional, plain wording (“protect the natural envi­ronment of the places we live in”).

The research team also notes that political conservatism displayed a negative association with pro-environmentalism and conservation intentions. This finding supports earlier research that had concluded the same. Researchers add that because “more conservative people are likely to avoid uncertainty and change, they tend to deny the threats of anthropogenic climate change and be reluctant to take pro-environmental behaviors that require behavioral changes.”

Moreover, conservatives “tend to oppose pro-environmental policies because they think that these policies would undermine the economy and their economic liberty by regulating their business and behaviors.”

All in all, researchers conclude their work suggests that simply using language that aligns with conservative moral values probably isn’t going to be enough to actually spark green behaviors among more conservative people.

So, what can green campaigns do? Instead, study authors suggest pro-environmental campaigns should consider other conservative values, norms, identity, and political context in order to be more effective across the political spectrum.

The study is published in the journal Social Psychological Bulletin.

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