Psychologists Are Learning How to Convince Conservatives to Take Climate Change Seriously

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s People’s Climate March drew 400,000 people onto the streets of Manhattan and a great deal of international attention to a subject of dire urgency. But some were skeptical about the event’s overall significance. “The march slogan was, ‘to change everything, we need everyone,’ which is telling, because it won’t change everything, because it didn’t include everyone,” wrote David Roberts of Grist. “Specifically, it won’t change American politics because it didn’t include conservatives.” True enough.

If there weren’t such a stark divide between American conservatives and almost everyone else on the question of the existence and importance of climate change — a divide that can approach 40 points on some polling questions — the political situation would be very different. So if any progress on climate change is going to be made through the American political system — apart from executive orders by Democratic presidents — it is going to have to somehow involve convincing a lot of conservatives that yes, climate change is a threat to civilization.

How do you do that? The answer has more to do with psychology than politics.

The practice of tailoring a political message to a particular group is commonplace, of course. But the climate activist community has broadly failed to understand just how differently conservatives and liberals see the world on certain issues, and, as a result, just how radically different messages targeting conservatives should look.

Although climate scientists update, appropriately, their models after ten years of evidence, climate-science communicators haven’t,” said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale who studies how people respond to information challenging their beliefs. Luckily, social and political psychologists are on the case. “I think there’s an emerging science of how we should talk about this if we’re going to be effective at getting any sort of movement,” said Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that for many conservatives (and liberals), the current debate about climate change isn’t really about competing piles of evidence or about facts at all — it’s about identity. Climate change has come to serve as shorthand for which side you’re on, and conservatives tend to be deeply averse to what climate crusaders represent (or what they think they represent). “The thing most likely to make it hard to sway somebody is that you’re trying to sway them,” said Kahan.

But in practical, apolitical contexts, many conservatives already recognize and are willing to respond to the realities of climate change. “There’s a climate change people reject,” Kahan explained. “That’s the one they use if they have to be a member of one or another of those groups. But there’s the climate change information they accept that’s just of a piece with all the information and science that gets used in their lives.” A farmer approached by a local USDA official with whom he’s worked before, for example, isn’t going to start complaining about hockey-stick graphs or biased scientists when that official tells him what he needs to do to account for climate-change-induced shifts to local weather patterns.

In a larger context, social scientists have shown in laboratory settings that there are ways to discuss climate change that nudge conservatives toward recognizing the issue. Research is proceeding along a few different tracks. One of them involves moral foundations theory, a hot idea in political psychology that basically argues that people holding different political beliefs arrive at those beliefs because they have different moral values (even if there’s plenty of overlap). Liberals tend to be more moved by the idea of innocent people being harmed than conservatives, for example, while conservatives are more likely to react to notions of disgust (some of the conservative rhetoric over immigration reflects this difference).

In a study they published in Psychological Science in 2013, Willer and a colleague, the Stanford social psychologist Matthew Feinberg, tested the effectiveness of framing environmental issues in a way that takes into account conservatives’ moral foundations. After completing a questionnaire that included items about their political beliefs, respondents were asked to read one of three excerpts. The unfortunate control group “read an apolitical message on the history of neckties.” For the other two groups, though, what followed was an op-ed-like block of text designed to stoke either “care/harm” (innocents suffering) or “purity/sanctity” (disgust) concerns — one excerpt “described the harm and destruction humans are causing to their environment and emphasized how important it is for people to care about and protect the environment,” while the other touched on “how polluted and contaminated the environment has become and how important it is for people to clean and purify the environment.”

Afterwards, respondents were gauged on their pro-environmental attitudes and belief in global warming. In the care/harm group, there was a sizable gap between liberals and conservatives on both measures. In the disgust group, however, there was no statistically significant difference in general environmental attitudes, and the gap on belief in global warming had been cut significantly.

Another promising route that researchers are exploring involves the concept of “system justification.” Put simply, system justification arises from the deep-seated psychological need for humans to feel like the broad systems they are a part of are working correctly. It doesn’t feel good to know you attend a broken school or inhabit a deeply corrupt country — or that your planet’s entire ecology may be on the brink of collapse.

People tend to deal with major threats to their systems in one of two ways: taking a threat so seriously that they seek out ways to neutralize it, or “finding ways to justify away problems in order to maintain the sense of legitimacy and well-being of the system,” explained Irina Feygina, a social psychologist at New York University. This latter route is system justification.

Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on system justification, but there’s strong evidence they do it more than liberals. “There’s a lot of research that just goes out and asks people what their opinions and preferences are, and pretty consistently — I don’t actually know of any examples to the contrary — people who tend to report being further on the conservative end of the spectrum also report having greater confidence in the system and greater motivation to justify it,” said Feygina.

She and two colleagues looked into the connection between system justification and environmental beliefs for a series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2009. They found that, among an undergraduate sample at least, there was a strong correlation between system justification (as measured by reactions to items like “In general, the American political system operates as it should”) and denial of environmental problems.

In a follow-up study designed to test whether this relationship was causal or simply correlational, students read a rather vanilla statement about how researchers have been tracking, with interest, changes to the environment. Some of the students also read two extra sentences: “Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources.” This final bit was designed specifically to “reframe[e] pro-environmental change as consistent with system preservation” by emphasizing not a threat to a beleaguered system, but rather an opportunity to help protect an established, robust one.

After reading the passage, students rated their agreement with ten statements about whether and to what extent they planned on engaging in pro-environmental activities, and were asked if they would like to sign various pro-environmental petitions. In the control condition, those who felt a stronger urge to justify the system expressed weaker pro-environmental intentions and signed fewer petitions. In the experimental group, though, the researchers effectively defused the effects of system justification: there was no difference in attitudes and numbers of petition signed between strong and weak system justifiers.

So how would this translate to a real-world message? “What you need to do is put the system first,” said Feygina. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s deal with climate change, let’s be pro-environmental, let’s protect the oceans,’ what you need to do is come in and say, ‘If we want to preserve our system, if we want to be patriotic, if we want our children to have the life that we have, then we have to take these actions that allow us to maintain those things that we care about.’” The starting point can’t be about averting catastrophe, in other words — it has to be about pride in the current system and the need to maintain it.

She cited the film Carbonnation as an example:

There’s strikingly little talk of disaster here. Rather, climate change is viewed as a challenge to  a great country, yes, but also an opportunity to profit, to save money, to compete with China. And, crucially, the messengers aren’t environmentalists or easily identified “activists,” but instead are folks who fit into a conservative view of patriotism and hard work (“military, farmers, Midwesterners, people living in rural areas,” as Feygina put it). The environmental imagery isn’t melting ice caps or stranded polar bears — it’s snow-white clouds and sparkling, bubbling streams. And the filmmakers instantly neutralize any sense that this is about group membership by stating that the film is for both believers in and deniers of human-induced global warming. The movie’s tagline alone — “A climate change solutions movie (that doesn’t care if you believe in climate change)” — echoes many of Kahan, Willer, and Feygina’s suggestions.

Still, it’s not as though shifts in framing can undo decades of culture-war battles. Willer was realistic in describing the limitations of grafting language from moral foundations theory and system justification onto climate-change messages. “It’s unlikely that such a short, small framing intervention would have a long, sustained effect — that’s very unlikely,” said Willer. “The idea, we hope, is that application of these techniques in a longer-term more committed campaign would be effective and would stick.”

Another challenge, though, is that many of the messages that do seem to work for liberals — at least “work” in the sense of helping to build communities, organize marches, and so on — are ones that conservatives will likely find extremely off-putting. Climate activists often stamp their feet, perplexed as to how dire talk of ecologies collapsing and cities getting flooded don’t reach conservatives even as they assist in fund-raising and in activating liberals. “Oftentimes people decide on how they’re going to build their [message] based on intuition — they say ‘Oh, this is how humans works,’” said Feygina.

But that intuition is often flawed. If climate activists are serious about doing anything other than preaching to the choir, they’re going to have to understand that messages that feel righteous and work on liberals may not have universal appeal. To a liberal, the system isn’t working and innocent people will suffer as a result — these are blazingly obvious points. But conservatives have blazingly obvious points of their own: The system works and we need to protect it, and it’s important not to let pure things be defiled.

Climate activists, said Feygina, are often “not able to step outside that and ask questions about how we process information, and what are the barriers at hand.” And that, she said, “completely misses the target.”