Climate News - September 2020

Reaching across the Climate Divide in a Polarized Age

Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.

We've all been there; trying to delicately navigate a tricky discussion with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum. It happened to me on Sunday. Since COVID-19 began, my far-flung family has been using Zoom calls to stay in touch. We don't all share the same politics. To avoid conflict, we made a conscious decision to not discuss politics, but a sensitive political topic came up. Luckily, the conversation quickly changed! Here's a tip, should you find yourself in the same boat: when it comes to messaging about climate action or any other pro-environmental action, recent communication research shows how to cut across the political divide.

First, consider the moral foundation of whom you're talking to; reframing with the morals important to that person can really make a difference. Haidt and Graham (2007) showed that the moral foundations of conservatives and liberals differ, with some overlap. There are 5 overarching morals:

Moral Sample Statement
In-group loyalty I care what my friends/neighbors think about me.
Purity/sanctity We should all work to purify our environment.
Authority/respect Follow the examples of your religious and political leaders who defend America’s natural environment.
Fairness/Reciprocity Climate impacts are about climate injustice.
Harm/Care Climate change harms us all.


Conservatives hold the top three morals (in-group loyalty, purity/sanctity, and authority/respect), called binding morals, more strongly. They share the other two morals (fairness/reciprocity and harm/care), called individualizing morals, with liberals, but messages with the latter two morals do not resonate as strongly with conservatives.

Climate change messages addressing fairness/reciprocity (e.g., climate justice) and harm/care predominate in the news, which may unfortunately put off conservatives in articles about climate change. If you frame a climate story with other moral messages instead, you can broaden support for your message to conservatives. For example, Wolsko et al. (2016) explored the impact of framing with the in-group binding values (of authority/respect and purity/sanctity) with individualizing morals (emphasizing fairness/justice and harm/care), and with a control group. They found a significant increase in pro-climate intentions, attitudes, environmental donations, and perceived message strength by conservatives with messages emphasizing the binding values of authority/respect and purity/sanctity. Previous research on pro-environmental messaging by Kidwell et al. (2013) found that framing recycling messages selectively to liberals and conservatives led to more recycling by both groups.

Second, consider who you're talking about in a climate story. In the relevant research, social distance refers to how close someone feels to someone else. Low social distance means someone is close, as in your community; high social distance could mean someone living in another country. Hart and Nisbet (2012) showed that the social distance of people hurt by climate change influenced Republican but not Democratic support; Republicans were more likely to support climate mitigation policies that benefitted local people more than people farther away. If you are going to highlight people living in more distant places, underscore shared goals and identities with them to try to reduce that social distance gap.

Third, consider the actual words and arguments that you use. What words work for pro-climate messaging? The Center for Research on Environmental Decision's Communications Guide (2009) provides a list of words that appeal to those with either a prevention or a promotion focus; the former being more appropriate for liberals and the latter, for conservatives. Effective words to use for conservatives are words like responsibility, duty, obligation, security, defend, and protect. Effective words to use for liberals are aspirational words like: ideal, aspire, support, nurture, promote. Gustafson et al. (2020) studied which messages appeal to Republicans or Democrats to support renewable energy. For Republicans, the single least compelling reason to support renewable energy was to reduce global warming! In contrast, for Democrats, the most compelling reason for renewable energy was to reduce global warming! But the researchers found messages that would work well with both groups—e.g., messages emphasizing that renewable energy reduces water pollution. Hardisty et al. (2009) explored how political ideology influenced support for carbon fees. The researchers showed that framing carbon fees as carbon offsets instead of taxes greatly increased Republican and Independents’ support for consumer action. Democrats did not vary in their support, however, regardless of how the carbon fee was framed.

P.S. These and other evidence-based behavior change theories are highlighted in our upcoming climate change course, Behavior Change for Climate Action 101We could still use additional Beta-testers for this course. If you have environmental experience and would like to be a Beta-Tester, please email me at I also hope you'll check out our new Dive Deeper course on Oceans and Climate, in collaboration with YouTube Channel Just Have a Think.



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