Blog post

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 media2 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.

  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.
  • Charlie_Mansell

    Very good research showing the continued need for a strategic approach towards promoting intrinsic values. Are we really sure ‘cultural conservatism’ is an intrinsic value? Its sounds much more like sustenance, safety and security values in the Schwarz wheel which creates a frame which ends up also including opposition to windfarms and support for fox hunting! The fatalism you found when people responded to an extrinsic message also sounds like sustenance, safety and security values. By assuming just a bipolar conflict between extrinsic and intrinsic values (understandable for those researching how to mainly change the behaviour of businesses and perhaps the more status driven) we might forget a large proportion of the population are driven by much more conservative values of safety, security and sustenance, which are not flashy, status driven or outer directed and thus not significantly extrinsic as such.

  • Doug Love

    Excellent information for me to incorporate in my presentations!