Why Some People Take Action On Climate Change -- And Others Don't

A new study pinpoints moral values that could drive people to act.
A woman protests in Marrakesh, Morocco, near the COP22 climate conference on Nov. 13.
Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A woman protests in Marrakesh, Morocco, near the COP22 climate conference on Nov. 13.

In the wake of last week’s election, the gulf between liberals and conservatives has never felt bigger.

This divide is just as apparent when it comes to environmental issues as it is with any others. With a Trump presidency comes an Environmental Protection Agency led by “climate criminal” Myron Ebell, the possible cancelation of the Paris climate agreement and the potential scrapping of major carbon restrictions ― measures that many conservatives applaud as being good for business but liberals view as nothing less than a disaster.

The diverging moral values of liberals and conservatives offer an important window into why the two groups differ in their willingness to take action to protect the environment, according to new Cornell University research.

But it’s not as simple as liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican. The study, which was conducted on over 1,000 volunteers and published in the online journal PLOS One on Oct. 19, found that the moral values of compassion and fairness ― and, to a lesser extent, purity ― influenced an individual’s willingness to take personal action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“As we learn what’s important to different kinds of people with respect to climate change, that information can help us communicate in ways where the problem can be heard,” Dr. Janis Dickinson, a professor of natural resources at Cornell and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post. “And I think we may be missing arguments that are important to people if we ignore moral diversity.”

Morality, Neither Liberal Nor Conservative

The researchers found, unsurprisingly, that those who believed in climate change, regardless of party affiliation, were much more willing to act. On the other hand, people who described themselves as conservative, as well as those who were older and male, were less inclined to act.

The study’s investigation of moral values was based on a theory developed by prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which identifies five “axes” around which we formulate moral reasoning: compassion/harming, fairness/cheating, in-group loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and purity/degradation.

Previous research has found that liberals value compassion and fairness more highly ― values that are clearly at play in the climate change debate ― while conservatives tend to value purity, in-group loyalty and authority most.

It’s easy to see how compassion and fairness play into other social causes championed by liberals, such as marriage equality and racial justice. On the other hand, a drive toward purity and in-group loyalty seem to play a role in conservative stances opposing abortion and immigration.

Most moral arguments around climate change may inadvertently appeal more to liberals by focusing on its effects on animals, vulnerable populations and future generations.

“Climate change will have its earliest and greatest impacts on nations and people with fewer resources, so it is clearly about both equity and suffering,” Dickinson said. “Inequity aversion and compassion or caring are really what drive us, in the immediate sense, to give up some of what we are attached to for the sake of others.”

““We shouldn’t rule out anyone and we cannot afford to be polarized on this issue, which is going to have a huge impact on current and future generations.””

The values of compassion and fairness are ultimately about relationships, added environmental psychologist Dr. Renee Lertzman, who reviewed the study for The Huffington Post.

“It is relationship here that is at stake — relationships with diverse populations and communities, as well as with the nonhuman lives we share the planet with,” she said.

But it’s important to note that even strong moral values can easily conflict with other values a person might hold, limiting that person’s willingness to make personal choices that benefit the environment. Those conflicts need to be considered, Lertzman added.

“We may value compassion and fairness, but also value being a good provider, which can involves high carbon behaviors,” she said. “We need to find ways to address how values can be in conflict for many — and how we can help people move through those conflicts into action.”

So people profiting from fossil fuel industries, for example, might override their compassionate feelings in favor of preserving their financial stability.

Moving The Dial On Climate Change

Appealing to moral values including purity ― for instance, by emphasizing the “impurity” of destroying natural resources ― may be one way to mobilize individuals of both political parties around environmental issues.

There’s some evidence suggesting this strategy may be effective. A 2013 study showed that framing climate change issues in terms of “pollution and contamination” improved environmental attitudes among conservatives, while other types of moral appeals did not have an effect.

“If communicators, and especially religious leaders, can make use of this understanding of moral diversity by including all three of these moral values in their discussions of climate change, this may prove helpful,” Dickinson said. “We shouldn’t rule out anyone and we cannot afford to be polarized on this issue, which is going to have a huge impact on current and future generations.”

With Trump’s presidency looms the potential of enormous, if not catastrophic, setbacks to humans’ attempts to mitigate climate change. Now more than ever, action and progress on environmental issues must continue. For people wondering about how to support the environment in light of the election, donating to reputable environmental organizations is one place to start.

“I think many of us who are scientists, especially those of us who study the earth’s biota, are deeply concerned about the irreversible damage to the earth system that is inevitable if Donald Trump’s campaign promises come to fruition,” she said. “My personal strategy will be to make monthly payments to the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Sierra Club. Together, we need to work to keep policies and protections in place at the federal and state levels, and to uphold our international commitments on climate change.”

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