Guest essay by Eric Worrall
One of the more amusing climate dramas in the wake of the Trump victory, is watching Liberal attempts to construct a theory of Conservative climate “denial”, so they can figure out which button to prod to make us all support carbon pricing.
This one weird trick will not convince conservatives to fight climate change
Clever new arguments are beside the point.
Conservative climate denialists are a source of immense frustration to scientists and liberals — and have been for decades. As long as I’ve been writing, there’s been a perpetual quest to find just the right argument to appeal to conservatives and pierce their denial.
This has led to periodic flurries of headlines in the climate journosphere around various social science studies that purport to finally crack the nut, to find the argument that works. Dozens of “easy ways to get conservatives to care about climate change” have floated through the media over the years; oddly, with all these easy ways to change their minds floating around, conservatives continue denying climate change
The latest chapter of this unending story began a few weeks ago, when a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that purported to show a way to change pro-environmental attitudes in conservatives.
The studies were conducted online. Study participants were exposed to various messages about climate change (and other social problems) and then rated their feelings about the urgency of the problem.
The results showed that “past comparisons” — comparing the damage climate change has done to the past purity of ecosystems — do more to increase conservatives’ pro-environmental feelings than warnings about the future. “Past comparisons largely bridged the political divide in addressing global warming,” the authors write.
“Our studies describe in words and pictures what the past used to be like, an almost Eden-like version of the planet, one with clean forests and little traffic and pollution. Then we draw a comparison to today, without any references to the future,” Matthew Baldwin, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Cologne and one of the authors, told Climate Progress. “It is much harder to avoid the reality of change when the comparison is to the beautiful planet in its ‘untouched’ form.”
Only conservative elites can change conservative climate beliefs
The literature on how public opinion is formed and influenced is fairly clear. I summarized it (drawing on this great Jerry Taylor post, which in turn draws on John Zaller’s The Nature & Origins of Mass Opinion) here:
One, most people have no coherent ideology and no firm opinions on “issues,” as they are defined in politics.
Two, partially as a consequence, “elite discourse is the most important driver of public opinion.”
How can conservative elites be persuaded to think and communicate differently about climate change? That’s a subject for another post, but here’s a spoiler: The answer won’t be found in clever arguments or skillful persuasion, but in money, power, and material interests.
The abstract of the published paper referenced by the article;
Past-focused environmental comparisons promote proenvironmental outcomes for conservatives
Conservatives appear more skeptical about climate change and global warming and less willing to act against it than liberals. We propose that this unwillingness could result from fundamental differences in conservatives’ and liberals’ temporal focus. Conservatives tend to focus more on the past than do liberals. Across six studies, we rely on this notion to demonstrate that conservatives are positively affected by past- but not by future-focused environmental comparisons. Past comparisons largely eliminated the political divide that separated liberal and conservative respondents’ attitudes toward and behavior regarding climate change, so that across these studies conservatives and liberals were nearly equally likely to fight climate change. This research demonstrates how psychological processes, such as temporal comparison, underlie the prevalent ideological gap in addressing climate change. It opens up a promising avenue to convince conservatives effectively of the need to address climate change and global warming.
Hasn’t buying off Conservatives already been tried? That plan failed, as I recall.
There are enormous potential financial opportunities for rich elites who support carbon pricing, to skim money from the misery of poor people through rent-seeking – using their capital and influence to force ordinary people to buy their expensive green energy.
The fact such rent-seeking schemes have been vocally criticised and largely rejected, in many cases by people who stood to make billions had they been implemented, demonstrates that at least some people in positions of influence still give a damn about doing the right thing. You can’t buy off everyone, David Roberts.