The moral side of environmental issues

Posted by Christine, March 1, 2015

Robb Willer, a sociologist, examines how liberals and conservatives communicate regarding the environment in the NY Times:

PALO ALTO, Calif. — ACCORDING to a recent poll, a large majority of Americans, and roughly half of Republicans, say they support governmental action to address global warming. The poll, conducted by The New York Times, Stanford and the research organization Resources for the Future, stands in stark contrast to the vast partisan gulf in political efforts to address climate change. How could it be that so many Republicans view global warming as a problem, but so few on the right are pressuring the government to take action to address it?

A paper that Matthew Feinberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, and I published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013 suggests one answer to this puzzle: While the number of Republicans who say global warming is a serious problem has reached high levels, there remains a very large gap in moral engagement with the issue. We found that conservatives were less likely than liberals to describe pro-environmental efforts in moral terms, or to pass moral judgment on someone who behaved in an environmentally unfriendly way, for example by not recycling. Where liberals view environmental issues as matters of right and wrong, conservatives generally do not.

But why does this moral gap matter if most people now believe that global warming is a real threat? Other research has shown that people are generally reluctant to undertake costly political actions, even for a cause they think will be beneficial. After all, there are so many worthy causes competing for our time, effort and resources, and we can’t contribute to every one.

People think quite differently, however, when they are morally engaged with an issue. In such cases people are more likely to eschew a sober cost-benefit analysis, opting instead to take action because it is the right thing to do. Put simply, we’re more likely to contribute to a cause when we feel ethically compelled to.

Still, why do liberals moralize environmental issues, while conservatives do not? The answer is complex, owing in part to the specific history of the American environmental movement. A quick review of that history reveals that, while the environment has been politically polarizing since the 1960s, there is nothing inevitably liberal about environmental concern. After all, it was a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, who founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Our research points to a different factor in the moralization gap: the terms in which these issues are commonly discussed in the media. We enlisted a team of research assistants to code the moral content of 51 environmental public service announcements and 402 opinion articles appearing in major American newspapers. The arguments found in these messages most often discussed environmental issues like climate change in terms of the need to protect people and ecosystems from harm and destruction. Protection from harm is a moral concern that, past research finds, resonates significantly more with American liberals than conservatives. By contrast, moral concerns more unique to conservatives like patriotism, respect for authority, sanctity or purity rarely appeared in the environmental appeals we studied.

It is unclear if moral rhetoric around the environment takes the form it does because it’s an intuitive fit (even the relatively conservative Mr. Nixon called it the Environmental Protection Agency), or because it is liberals who most often fashion environmental appeals. Regardless, we should not be surprised to find underlying moral polarization on issues discussed primarily in liberal moral terms.

But this research also suggests an intriguing possibility: that pro-environmental messages specifically targeting conservative values could close the moral gap and persuade conservatives to join the environmental cause.

To assess this, we conducted a final study in which we constructed a pro-environmental message based in moral purity. This message emphasized the need to protect natural habitats from “desecration” so that our children can experience the “uncontaminated purity and value of nature.” We presented one group of self-identified conservatives with this message, another group with a more conventional message emphasizing the need to protect ecosystems from harm, and a third group with a neutral essay that didn’t mention the environment. The conservatives presented with the purity message reported significantly greater support for pro-environmental legislation than the other two groups — indeed, they were as supportive as a group of liberals we also surveyed. Conservatives who read the moral purity message even reported greater belief in global warming, though the message itself didn’t mention global warming, only environmental issues in general.

To win over more of the public, environmentalists must look beyond the arguments that they themselves have found convincing. The next wave of moral arguments for environmental reform will need to look very different from the last, if they are to be maximally effective. Such efforts to understand others’ moral perspectives might not only bring both sides in line on this important issue, but also foster the sort of sincerity and respect necessary to sustain a large-scale collective effort.