‘Do-gooders’, conservatives and reluctant recyclers: how personal morals can be harnessed for climate action


Jacqueline Lau, James Cook University; Andrew Song, University of Technology Sydney, and Jessica Blythe, Brock UniversityThere’s no shortage of evidence pointing to the need to act urgently on climate change. Most recently, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed Earth has warmed 1.09℃ since pre-industrial times and many changes, such as sea-level rise and glacier melt, cannot be stopped.

Clearly, emissions reduction efforts to date have fallen abysmally short. But why, when the argument in favour of climate action is so compelling?

Decisions about climate change require judging what’s important, and how the world should be now and in future. Therefore, climate change decisions are inherently moral. The rule applies whether the decision is being made by an individual deciding what food to eat, or national governments setting goals at international climate negotiations.

Our research reviewed the most recent literature across the social and behavioural sciences to better understand the moral dimensions of climate decisions. We found some moral values, such as fairness, motivate action. Others, such as economic liberty, stoke inaction.

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Those who prioritise economic liberty may be less willing to take climate action.
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Morals as climate motivators

Our research uncovered a large body of research confirming people’s moral values are connected to their willingness to act on climate change.

Moral values are the yardstick through which we understand things to be right or wrong, good or bad. We develop personal moral values through our families in childhood and our social and cultural context.

But which moral values best motivate personal actions? Our research documents a study in the United States, which found the values of compassion and fairness were a strong predictor of someone’s willingness to act on climate change.

According to moral foundations theory, the value of compassion relates to humans’ evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel and dislike the pain of others.

Fairness relates to the evolutionary process of “reciprocal altruism”. This describes a situation whereby an organism acts in a way that temporarily disadvantages itself while benefiting another, based on an expectation that the altruism will be reciprocated at a later time.




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Conversely, a study in Australia found people who put a lower value on fairness, compared to either the maintenance of social order or the right to economic freedom, were more likely to be sceptical about climate change.

People may also use moral “disengagement” to justify, and assuage guilt over, their own climate inaction. In other words, they convince themselves that ethical standards do not apply in a particular context.

For example, a longitudinal study of 1,355 Australians showed over time, people who became more morally disengaged became more sceptical about climate change, were less likely to feel responsible and were less likely to act.

Our research found the moral values driving efforts to reduce emissions (mitigation) were different to those driving climate change adaptation.

Research in the United Kingdom showed people emphasised the values of responsibility and respect for authorities, country and nature, when talking about mitigation. When evaluating adaptation options, they emphasised moral values such as protection from harm and fair distribution of economic costs.

people on crowd hold signs
Moral reasoning helps shape climate beliefs, including climate scepticism.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Framing climate decisions

How government and private climate decisions are framed and communicated affects who they resonate with, and whether they’re seen as legitimate.

Research suggests climate change could be made morally relevant to more people if official climate decisions appealed to moral values associated with right-wing political leanings.

A US study found liberals interpreted climate change in moral terms related to harm and care, while conservatives did not. But when researchers reframed pro-environmental messages in terms of moral values that resonated with conservatives, such as defending the purity of nature, differences in the environmental attitudes of both groups narrowed.

Indeed, research shows moral reframing can change pro-environmental behaviours of different political groups, including recycling habits.

In the US, people were found to recycle more after the practice was reframed in moral terms that resonated with their political ideology. For conservatives, the messages appealed to their sense of civic duty and respect for authority. For liberals, the messages emphasised recycling as an act of fairness, care and reducing harm to others.




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person opens lid of recycling bin
Reframing of messages can help encourage habits such as recycling.
James Ross/AAP

When moralising backfires

Clearly, morals are central to decision-making about the environment. In some cases, this can extend to people adopting – or being seen to adopt – a social identity with moral associations such as “zero-wasters”, “voluntary simplifiers” and cyclists.

People may take on these identities overtly, such as by posting about their actions on social media. In other cases, a practice someone adopts, such as cycling to work, can be construed by others as a moral action.

Being seen to hold a social identity based on a set of morals may actually have unintended effects. Research has found so-called “do-gooders” can be perceived by others as irritating rather than inspiring. They may also trigger feelings of inadequacy in others who, as a self-defense mechanism, might then dismiss the sustainable choices of the “do-gooder”.

For example, sociologists have theorised that some non-vegans avoid eating a more plant-based diet because they don’t want to be associated with the social identity of veganism.

It makes sense, then, that gentle encouragement such as “meat-free Mondays” is likely more effective at reducing meat consumption than encouraging people to “go vegan” and eliminate meat altogether.

Looking ahead

Personal climate decisions come with a host of moral values and quandaries. Understanding and navigating this moral dimension will be critical in the years ahead.

When making climate-related decisions, governments should consider the moral values of citizens. This can be achieved through procedures like deliberative democracy and citizen’s forums, in which everyday people are given the chance to discuss and debate the issues, and communicate to government what matters most to them.




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The Conversation


Jacqueline Lau, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Andrew Song, Lecturer / ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow (DECRA), University of Technology Sydney, and Jessica Blythe, Assistant Professor, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To get conservative climate contrarians to really listen, try speaking their language



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People will listen more when they like what they’re hearing.
Shutterstock.com

Jamie Freestone, The University of Queensland

It’s a well-studied fact that facts don’t speak for themselves. This is especially apparent with climate change. Some brilliant studies in the past ten years have shown that people respond to narratives about climate change, not raw facts.

We also know that politics, not scientific knowledge, shapes people’s view of climate change. Hence deniers are generally politically conservative, regardless of scientific literacy. That means a climate change narrative that appeals to conservative values is a high priority.

The effects of climate change are potentially catastrophic. Currently, a minority of conservative contrarians, including politicians in several countries, have an outsized influence on our lack of action. It makes sense that a big chunk of our campaigning efforts should be targeted at them.

But how many climate change campaigns are specifically targeted at people with a conservative worldview? Given what we know from the research, the answer is roughly none. Environmentalists, policy wonks and Brian Cox continue to preach to the choir. Yet more facts, lucidly explained, will actually make people double down on their pre-existing positions.




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Climate change holdouts are not necessarily ill-informed. But they naturally – like everyone else – do not welcome information that conflicts with their worldview. Conservatives are likely to disregard or filter out information that threatens economic growth, standards of living, and business interests.

They’re also likely to be unmoved by messages that emphasise the impact of climate change on the world’s poor. Especially ineffective are morally tinged narratives about how climate change is humanity’s fault and that we’re getting our comeuppance.

It doesn’t matter how accurate any of these narratives are; they won’t work with someone who isn’t open to them. Instead, we need to tailor new climate change narratives that appeal specifically to people with a conservative worldview.

Importantly, although politically targeted, these narratives don’t compromise or warp the science of climate change in any way. They simply emphasise different effects.

What might these narratives look like?

The first suggestion is that carbon dioxide emissions could be explained as a disruption to the status quo (of the climate), and thus at odds with conservative values. Climate change is a radical, anarchic experiment with the world’s atmosphere and vital systems.

So, rather than going on with “business as usual”, the sensible thing to do is to stop conducting a foolhardy all-in bet with the world’s water and air. A risk-averse, sane, conservative person should want to adopt the precautionary principle and suspend further greenhouse emissions.

Conservatives are more likely to respond to positive messages that emphasise agency rather than doom and gloom. Promoting geoengineering or market-based solutions like a carbon tax is a good idea. Even if your own political identity is opposed to these specific solutions, it’s at least worth using them to win conservatives round to the idea that climate change is real.

Third, climate change can be framed as a matter of impurity rather than harm. Harm to marginalised people and the environment is how many liberal-minded people conceive of climate change. But conservatives think more in terms of purity or sanctity. No worries. The effects of climate change can be no less accurately framed as being a violation of the purity or sanctity of the planet. Instead of harm to ecosystems, it’s a contamination of God’s green Earth.

Finally, we come to a difficult but potentially powerful narrative. It involves turning big industries in general against parts of the energy industry in particular. The more severe effects of climate change threaten the interests of everyone, including those of most large corporations.

We need to compose a narrative about the biggest emitters among fossil fuel companies not pulling their weight, and spoiling things for other industries. It might mobilise traditionally conservative business interests to support action on climate change.




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Whatever narratives we use, we need to test them to make sure that they are effective.

Selling the truth

For some, even the word “narrative” carries connotations of marketing spin, PR, propaganda, or lies. The bitter joke is that as science communicators, armed with mountains of facts, real stakes and endorsements from the best-looking celebrities, we have nonetheless failed to sell the truth.

But it’s not spin if it’s true. All I’m advocating is that we package the facts in a way that will appeal to an audience that has so far remained unmoved. It’s a matter of strategy.

Fossil fuel companies have savvy communications strategies and obvious material incentives to lie. They have donated millions of dollars to climate denial.

We don’t have to lie about climate change. It’s sadly all too real.

The ConversationIt’s time to play smart and win by engaging conservatives. Climate change shouldn’t be a political issue. But combating it has to take people’s political identities into account. Ignoring this fact is almost as naïve as believing that humans are not changing the climate.

Jamie Freestone, PhD student in literature, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.