Conservatives don't hate the environment, new research suggests

Living on Earth
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Liberal and conservative disagreement on climate change and the environment reflects the hyper-partisan times we live in. But it doesn't have to be that way, new research suggests.

According to eco-psychologist Christopher Wolsko of Oregon State University, environmental issues are expressed in the media and by advocacy groups largely within a framework of liberal values, which tends to exclude conservatives who might otherwise embrace the issues.

Wolsko found that reframing environmental topics in ways that reflect conservative values — such as respect for authority and patriotism — can better engage conservatives in the discussion.

Liberal moral values tend to focus on fairness, justice and concerns about whether individuals are being harmed or cared for, Wolsko explains. In the context of Moral Foundations Theory, these are known as “individualizing” moral concerns — protecting the rights and integrity of individual lives.

Conservatives are concerned with these values, too, but perhaps more strongly emphasize what theorists call “binding” moral values, Wolsko says. “These are values like in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and concerns about the purity and sanctity of human endeavors, like resisting overly hedonic behaviors in a way that would throw the group out of balance if everyone was kind of seeking their own personal desires,” he explains.

“My hypothesis is that conservatives are not inherently anti-environmental so much as they are chronically rejecting the liberal tone of the prevailing environmental discourse around these issues.”

To try to prove his hypothesis, Wolsko recruited 185 people from across the political spectrum. Then he randomly assigned them to one of three groups and presented each group with value-oriented environmental messages. One group saw calls to action that emphasized liberal values, like fairness and justice. He termed that group “individualizing.”

The second group saw messages that highlighted loyalty, respect for authority, and pride in the United States; this was called the “binding” group. The final control group received only a brief, generic call to address environmental issues.

Wolko found typical political polarization within both the “individualizing” and control groups. In the “binding morality” group, however, Wolsko found that conservatives tended to report greater belief in climate change, and greater belief that climate change resulted from human processes, not just natural cycles. They also tended to report greater likelihood of engaging in a variety of conservation behaviors, and feeling more connected to the natural environment.

These results point to the need for “a dialogue that includes this whole range of moral values in any appeal,” Wolsko says. “[W]e can simultaneously be aware of this range of moral values, affirm our own that are particularly important to us and tolerate and respect those that are important to others.”

In research Wolsko currently has under review, he attempted to come up with a moral frame that affirms both liberal and conservative moral values. He is seeing similar, if not better responses in this experiment, he says.

“I use a slogan called 'Conservative Values, Conserving the Environment.' I go through and list the number of conservative values that previous research might suggest would be appealing in this regard,” Wolsko explains. He asks both liberal and conservative audiences to look through and choose values they feel might unite people across the political spectrum on environmental issues.

Interestingly, he says, the one that comes up most often is personal responsibility — for yourself, for your family, for the land that you call home. “This seems to be an overlapping value that both liberals and conservatives can agree upon as really important for promoting pro-environmental causes,” Wolsko says.

Other values championed both by liberals and conservatives included making your own decisions on local land and water issues in the best interests of families, rather than leaving it to bureaucrats; respecting your elders; teaching children good values about taking care of the environment; and “working hard and playing hard in the great outdoors.”

“One of the purposes of this new research was to come up with this inclusive set of values, as well as to model a persuasive message that doesn’t try to manipulate, but tries to encourage this discourse around finding solutions that appeal to both liberals and conservatives, even though they might not be identical,” Wolsko says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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