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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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