Blue valuing green? Public engagement with climate change on the centre-right

This guest blog is by Valerie Mocker, who recently com­pleted her post­graduate degree in Environmental Policy at Oxford University. Here, she describes find­ings from her dis­ser­ta­tion research. They sug­gest that framing cli­mate change as an ‘eco­nomic’ chal­lenge may not be the best way to engage con­ser­vative audi­ences, leading people to exter­n­alise respons­ib­ility of cli­mate change and express higher degrees of fatalism about the issue. This blog was originally posted on Talking Climate on 22nd November. The ques­tion of how to more effect­ively com­mu­nicate with mem­bers of the public who hold centre-right polit­ical views is becoming increas­ingly important. Numerous studies show that in the UK – as else­where in the Anglo-Saxon world – scep­tical voices and beliefs about cli­mate change are con­cen­trated among Conservative voters,[1] the con­ser­vative media[2] and think-tanks on the polit­ical right (e.g., the Global Warming Policy Foundation). For sci­ent­ists, policy makers and the wide range of actors who speak to right-leaning audi­ences about cli­mate change, the ques­tion of how to com­mu­nicate more effect­ively is a crit­ical one.

In new research that I con­ducted as part of a post-graduate degree in Environmental Policy at Oxford University, I asked whether dif­ferent ways of framing mes­sages about cli­mate change in order to appeal to dif­ferent types of values would pro­duce dif­ferent responses from Conservative voters.

It is widely assumed that reaching right-wing audi­ences on envir­on­mental issues means spelling out the eco­nomic advant­ages of low-carbon industry, or the value of renew­able energy tech­no­lo­gies for the eco­nomy. However, my find­ings showed that in sev­eral important ways, using an expli­citly ‘eco­nomic’ framing for cli­mate change mes­sages is likely to be counter-productive, even for Conservative voters.

Conservative values for sustainability

The link between dif­ferent values and pro-environmental atti­tudes and beha­viour has been widely dis­cussed. According to Schwartz’s (1992) widely-used model, values can be broadly sep­ar­ated into extrinsic and intrinsic types.[3] Extrinsic values include eco­nomic suc­cess and anthro­po­centrism (valuing the envir­on­ment for its ser­vices to humans). On the other hand, intrinsic values include altruism, bene­vol­ence (enhan­cing wel­fare of people out­side ones imme­diate group which can include future gen­er­a­tions) and bio­centrism (granting nature intrinsic value).

Intrinsic values have been shown to pos­it­ively cor­relate with pro-environmental atti­tudes and beha­viours in a wide range of studies, whereas extrinsic values seem to be unhelpful in pro­voking such atti­tudes and beha­viours. As a result, there have been calls for cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion to be framed around intrinsic, rather than extrinsic values.[4]

In addi­tion, there are dif­ferent types of intrinsic and extrinsic values that are rel­evant for those of dif­ferent polit­ical per­sua­sions. For those on the centre-right, intrinsic values are likely to include an emphasis on intergen­er­a­tional duty, and the idea that people are respons­ible for their local com­munities (both forms of the value type ‘bene­vol­ence’[5]). Cultural con­ser­vatism, to pre­serve the nation’s her­itage – such as the British coun­tryside– is a form of bio­centrism and thereby another intrinsic value.

However, the way that cli­mate change is talked about in UK policy doc­u­ments is over­whelm­ingly extrinsic in its focus. My research found that cli­mate change is typ­ic­ally framed around eco­nomic bur­dens and bene­fits. Low carbon trans­port policies are an excel­lent example of that. With its title “Creating [eco­nomic] Growth, Cutting Carbon”, the 2011 White Paper on Local Sustainable Transport is a case in point as it util­ises a heavily eco­nomic framing.

Framing trans­port policy to reach Conservative audiences

My exper­i­ment tested two opposing ways of framing sus­tain­able trans­port policies with Conservative voters. Both frames were designed to appeal to the values typ­ic­ally held by those on the centre-right, but one focused on extrinsic, the other on intrinsic values. Participants saw one of two video speeches on low-carbon trans­port (which you can view here and here).

Both speeches were identical in the way they intro­duced UK trans­port prob­lems and the need for the elec­tri­fic­a­tion and increased use of public trans­port, as well as cyc­ling and walking. Whereas the “extrinsic” video framed these issues around eco­nomic and nation­al­istic con­cerns, the “intrinsic” video dis­cussed dangers and bene­fits for the health of com­munities, intergen­er­a­tional duties and the intrinsic value of the envir­on­ment. Among others, two very inter­esting res­ults emerged from this study.

Firstly, people who were exposed to eco­nomic argu­ments showed a much stronger exter­n­al­isa­tion of respons­ib­ility to the gov­ern­ment, who they con­sidered respons­ible for achieving a sus­tain­able trans­port system. In addi­tion, this group also showed higher levels of fatalism which sig­ni­fic­antly impeded people’s per­cep­tion of their own ability and respons­ib­ility to make a pos­itive dif­fer­ence to trans­port and cli­mate change. Both exter­n­al­isa­tion of respons­ib­ility to the “Other” and a sense of fatalism have been shown to be ser­ious bar­riers to per­sonal engage­ment with cli­mate change issues.[6] In con­trast, the intrinsic video seemed to pro­voke a feeling of empower­ment that then trans­lated into motiv­a­tion to act.

Secondly, the intrinsic frame res­on­ated par­tic­u­larly well with women, whereas no gender dif­fer­ence appeared in the group that saw the extrinsic video. Indeed, pre­vious research already estab­lished that women tend to show greater con­cern for envir­on­mental issues. However, this study implies that such tend­en­cies can be fur­ther amp­li­fied when emphas­ising com­munity health and intergen­er­a­tional responsibilities.

In short, extrinsic and intrinsic frames differed most sig­ni­fic­antly in their ability to raise a sense of per­sonal respons­ib­ility to make policy goals happen. However, it is the eco­nomic frame that is widely employed in cur­rent policy com­mu­nic­a­tion – which I found caused stronger exter­n­al­isa­tion of respons­ib­ility and feel­ings of fatalism. This is a sig­ni­ficant problem as beha­viour change, which is heavily dependent on a sense of empower­ment and per­sonal respons­ib­ility, will be cru­cial for achieving sig­ni­ficant carbon reduc­tions.[7]

The implic­a­tions for cli­mate change communication

First of all, policy makers should explore intrinsic fram­ings, espe­cially when they want cit­izens to take on respons­ib­ility for change. When talking to Conservatives spe­cific­ally, the values employed should embrace intrinsic shades of Conservatism, such as an emphasis on com­munity well-being, intergen­er­a­tional duty and rep­res­ent­a­tion of the envir­on­ment not as a ser­vice pro­vider but as (for example) some­thing that deserves to be protected.

Secondly, policy makers could broaden their sup­port net­work by stra­tegic­ally tar­geting par­tic­u­larly receptive groups. Women, and organ­isa­tions such as The Conservative Women’s organ­isa­tion, would be a good starting point when employing intrinsic frames.

However, reframing is not enough. Firstly, whereas my exper­i­ment showed that the intrinsic frame was more suc­cessful in pro­voking feel­ings of per­sonal respons­ib­ility and empower­ment, such pro­nounced dif­fer­ences did not appear for other meas­ures, such as an increased issue recog­ni­tion or changes in scep­ti­cism. Secondly, des­pite suc­cessful com­mu­nic­a­tion, various sub­sequent bar­riers often pre­vent beha­viour change, among them infra­struc­tural con­straints and habit.

Interestingly, a qual­it­ative part of my study showed that uncer­tain­ties about elec­tric cars were the most common cri­ti­cism of the speeches. Respondents argued that elec­tric cars only made sense if those were part of a wider policy set including clean energy pro­duc­tion. Additionally, par­ti­cipants were uncer­tain about the meaning of “sus­tain­ab­ility” and the mech­an­isms of achieving it. In other words, des­pite the import­ance of exploring dif­ferent fram­ings, the sub­stance of the mes­sage still mat­ters – and there is no sub­sti­tute for a coherent policy pro­posal that shows clearly how gov­ern­ments and cit­izens can work together to achieve mean­ingful action on cli­mate change.

Originally posted on Common Cause – read 7 comments there.

  1. [1]Whitmarsh, L, 2011. Scepticism and uncer­tain­ties about cli­mate change: dimen­sions, determ­in­ants and change over time. Environment & Planning A, 43(2), 258–261
  2. [2]Painter, J., 2011. Poles Apart. The International Reporting of Climate Scepticism, Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
  3. [3]Schwartz, S.H., 1992. Universals in the con­tent and struc­ture of values: Theory and empir­ical tests in 20 coun­tries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press, pp. 1–65
  4. [4]Crompton, T., 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with Cultural Values. London
  5. [5]Shrubsole, Guy, 2011. The envir­on­ment and con­ser­vative values. In Boyle, D. Different Politics, Same Planet. Values for sus­tain­able devel­op­ment beyond left and right. London
  6. [6]Lorenzoni, I., Nicholsoncole, S. & Whitmarsh, L, 2007. Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3-4), pp.445-459.
  7. [7]Banister, David, 2010. Cities, urban form and sprawl: A european per­spective. In ECMT Road Table Report 137. p. 112.

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