Communication about environmental issues can bridge the political divide

A relatively new theory that identifies universal concerns underlying human judgment could be key to helping people with opposing views on an issue coax each other to a different way of thinking, new research suggests.

The researchers wrote experimental messages designed to urge readers to support a move away from fossil fuels; photo credit UN Photo/Kibae Park

The study tested the effectiveness of pro-environment messages guided by moral foundations theory, which suggests that at least five foundational principles influence our decisions about right and wrong.

Researchers wrote two experimental messages that were designed to urge readers to support a move away from fossil fuels as a primary energy source in the United States. The framing of one message appealed to conservative moral foundations (by noting that reliance on foreign resources is a national security concern) and the other drew on moral principles most meaningful to liberals (by citing the need to protect vulnerable citizens from a toxic environment).

The overarching finding, according to the statement: The conservative moral message framing was more effective than liberal framing at increasing conservatives’ support for transitioning away from fossil fuels, especially when research participants were told the message came from a conservative source.

People use language to frame their own issues

A January 2020 Pew Research Center survey notes the persistent partisan gap in this policy area: 85% of Democrats say protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Fewer than half as many Republicans (39%) rate environmental protection as a major priority.

Previous research has shown, in the context of moral foundations theory, that communication of traditionally conservative ideas to liberals and traditionally liberal ideas to conservatives does not routinely change minds, said Kristin Hurst, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate in behavior and sustainability in The Ohio State University School of Environment and Natural Resources.

“It’s not always the case that the issues are fundamentally incompatible with the other side’s values,” Hurst said. “It’s more that people on both sides of the political spectrum tend to frame their own issues using the language and arguments that align with the moral convictions of their own group.

According to the theory, liberals tend to base their judgments on two moral foundations emphasizing the care of and fairness for people as individuals. Conservatives are more likely to rely on five principles – care and fairness plus those that increase group cohesiveness through loyalty and authority – as guides for their decisions. The fifth principle important to conservatives is sanctity, or purity, which refers to protecting the sacredness of valued objects, people, places and beliefs.

Changing how we communicate environmental issues

The researchers conducted two surveys – one with both liberal and conservative participants and a second with only conservatives. Hurst and Stern found, as in previous research,that the moral framing doesn’t tend to matter when a group – liberals, in this case – already agrees with the issue.

To gauge a change in support for the issue, the questionnaire asked people if they were more likely to support the transition away from fossil fuels now than they were before they read the message assigned to them. Conservatives reported more concern about and support for a reduction in U.S. fossil fuel use when they read the conservative message from a conservative source compared to those who read the liberal message from the liberal source.

“This is not about getting conservatives to think like liberals,” saidHurst, “but rather changing how we communicate about environmental issues to highlight that caring about the environment is not just a liberal issue – it is also compatible with deeply help conservative values.”

Photo credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park

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