Blog post

Don’t give up on engaging conservatives

Apr 14, 2014 by | 1 Comment

This guest post is by Paul Connor, a post­graduate researcher in social psy­cho­logy at the University of Melbourne. His research is cur­rently focused on cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion and pro-environmental cul­tural change processes.

There is little doubt that the issue of cli­mate change has become increas­ingly polar­ised along polit­ical lines over the past decade. Yet des­pite this trend, it remains important for cli­mate advoc­ates to remember that this party-line split is far from abso­lute. In both Australia and the USA, for example, one in four con­ser­vative voters still accepts the basic tenets of cli­mate change sci­ence, and as the fol­lowing research sug­gests, there may be ways of tail­oring cli­mate mes­sages to increase their appeal to such audiences.

System-Sanctioned Change

In their 2010 paper, Irina Feygina of New York University and col­leagues explored the con­nec­tion between envir­on­mental atti­tudes and a psy­cho­lo­gical tend­ency known as ‘system jus­ti­fic­a­tion’. This is a  tend­ency strongly related to con­ser­vative polit­ical atti­tudes to defend society’s status quo and see ‘the way things are’ as ‘the ways things should be’. Across two exper­i­ments, res­ults showed system jus­ti­fic­a­tion to be cor­rel­ated with the denial of envir­on­mental prob­lems. Indeed, the extent to which people reported holding system jus­ti­fying beliefs largely (but not totally) explained the con­nec­tion between people’s polit­ical ori­ent­a­tion and their envir­on­mental denial.

Following this, Feygina and col­leagues presented people with a gen­eric mes­sage about the envir­on­ment, and some of them also a ‘system-sanctioned change’ mes­sage, which read:

Being pro-environmental allows us to pro­tect and pre­serve the American way of life. It is pat­ri­otic to con­serve the country’s nat­ural resources”.

While res­ults showed that there was no overall dif­fer­ence between the ‘system sanc­tioned’ mes­sage and the normal mes­sage in pro­moting pro-environmental inten­tions and beha­viours, the system-sanctioned mes­sage was sig­ni­fic­antly more effective among people high in system jus­ti­fic­a­tion. The authors con­cluded that: “…reframing envir­on­ment­alism as sup­porting (rather than under­mining) the American way or life elim­in­ates the neg­ative effect of system jus­ti­fic­a­tion on pro-environmental behavior”.

Co-Benefits Framing

A 2012 study by Paul Bain from the University of Queensland and col­leagues explored whether cli­mate change scep­tics could per­haps be sold on cli­mate change action by stressing its pos­sible co-benefits in addi­tion to mit­ig­ating cli­mate change. They presented a large sample of people (including 128 cli­mate scep­tics) one of three ‘per­sonal testi­mo­nials’ relating dif­ferent reasons for sup­porting cli­mate action.

The first sug­gested cli­mate action would create a friend­lier society (“I think it’d make us more con­sid­erate in other ways – like looking out for each other, and caring for people in the com­munity”). The second sug­gested it would pro­mote soci­etal devel­op­ment (“Taking action to reduce energy pol­lu­tion would lead to new sci­entific break­throughs and new indus­tries”). And the third sug­gested it would pre­vent envir­on­mental destruc­tion (“We’d be less affected by food and water shortages”).

As expected, res­ults showed that the testi­mo­nials pro­moting the co-benefits of cli­mate change action pro­duced sig­ni­fic­antly higher pro-environmental inten­tions among the scep­tics than the testi­mo­nial focused on envir­on­mental destruc­tion. Moreover, the co-benefits testi­mo­nials were also more effective in pro­du­cing envir­on­mental cit­izen­ship inten­tions even among the cli­mate change believers (though this effect did not reach stat­ist­ical significance).

Stressing the Consensus

Research indic­ates that the public vastly under­es­tim­ates the level of con­sensus around cli­mate change sci­ence. A 2011 study in the USA found that among its 751 par­ti­cipants, 66% could be clas­si­fied as ‘con­sensus not under­stood’. Moreover, the res­ults showed that there was a strong cor­rel­a­tion between people’s per­cep­tions of the sci­entific con­sensus around cli­mate change and their sup­port for cli­mate change policies, with people’s per­cep­tions of the sci­entific con­sensus were shown to explain nearly 60% of the vari­ance in their sup­port for cli­mate policies.

Extending upon these find­ings, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and col­leagues invest­ig­ated the effects of increasing people’s per­cep­tions of the sci­entific con­sensus. They began by asking people how many out of 100 cli­mate sci­ent­ists they believed endorsed the con­sensus view. Following this, they provided half of the people with inform­a­tion about the fac­tual 97% sci­entific con­sensus on cli­mate change.

They then asked again about people’s cli­mate beliefs, as well as their endorse­ment of ‘free-market’ ideo­logy, which is known to be related to lower belief in cli­mate change. Results showed that providing the con­sensus inform­a­tion had a large effect.

On the follow-up ques­tioning, the group that received the con­sensus inform­a­tion showed sig­ni­fic­antly higher belief in cli­mate change than the group not provided the con­sensus inform­a­tion. In addi­tion, while endorse­ment of free market cap­it­alism dis­played its normal cor­rel­a­tion with lower belief in cli­mate change among the group who did not receive the con­sensus inform­a­tion, among the people who received the con­sensus inform­a­tion there was no such correlation.

The authors con­cluded that “the role of ideo­logy was drastic­ally atten­u­ated when par­ti­cipants were provided with inform­a­tion about the sci­entific con­sensus”. These studies indicate that cli­mate act­iv­ists do not neces­sarily need to give up on conservative-minded demo­graphics. Instead, they show us that by keeping in mind the argu­ments and frames that appeal to con­ser­vat­ives, the non-climate related bene­fits of cli­mate action, and the import­ance of an accurate under­standing of the sci­entific con­sensus, there are ways of subtly tail­oring com­mu­nic­a­tions that will be more effective among more con­ser­vative audiences.

Download COIN’s report on enga­ging with con­ser­vative audi­ences here.

1 Comment + Add Comment

  • “Following this, they provided half of the people with inform­a­tion about the fac­tual 97% sci­entific con­sensus on cli­mate change.”

    It’s actu­ally about 80–85%. (If you think sci­ence is decided by voting, that is.)

    For example, Doran and Zimmerman 2009 asked 10257 Earth sci­ent­ists for their opinion on two ques­tions: “1. When com­pared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global tem­per­at­ures have gen­er­ally risen, fallen, or remained rel­at­ively con­stant?” and “2. Do you think human activity is a sig­ni­ficant con­trib­uting factor in chan­ging mean global tem­per­at­ures?” and got 3146 replies. They report “Results show that overall, 90% of par­ti­cipants answered “risen” to ques­tion 1 and 82% answered yes to ques­tion 2.”

    They then go on to con­sider a smaller subset of 79 par­ti­cipants who pub­lish a lot in cli­mate sci­ence of who 75 answered ‘yes’ to ques­tion 2, (3 answered ‘no’ and 2 were not asked because they had answered ‘not risen’ to the first ques­tion.) That’s 95%.

    Thus, the cor­rect state­ment is: “The per­centage of sci­ent­ists who get more than half of their papers pub­lished in cli­mate sci­ence and who think global tem­per­at­ures have risen who also think human activ­ities are “a sig­ni­ficant con­trib­uting factor” is 97%. (Give or take about 5% due to the small sample size)”

    Bray and von Storch got a sim­ilar result, and other sur­veys of sci­ent­ists and met­eor­o­lo­gists have some­times got even lower results.

    It’s also worth noting that a majority of scep­tics think that man is “a sig­ni­ficant con­trib­uting factor”. That’s not what the argu­ment is about.

    If Lewandowsky can’t even get some­thing simple to measure like the opin­ions of sci­ent­ists right, why should anyone believe him on any­thing else?

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