The notorious skepticism among most conservatives regarding the issue of climate change has many scientists concerned about how the incoming Trump administration will handle environmental policy. But on the bright side, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that conservatives react positively to messages on climate change if they emphasize what was instead of what will be.
Political ideology is a significant indicator of whether a person believes that climate change is a legitimate concern. Dr. Matthew Baldwin and Dr. Joris Lammers, two social psychologists with the Social Cognition Center at the University of Cologne, wanted to look closely at this polarized effect and whether it can be overcome.
"We were motivated by the need to understand where people on each side of the aisle were coming from, so that we could learn how to prevent what could be a disaster," Baldwin told Seeker Baldwin first became interested in this topic as Donald Trump's campaign started taking off.
"The slogan 'Make America Great Again' sort of perked my ears up, because I figured that understanding how conservatives and liberals think would be relevant and important if he were to be elected," he said.
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American political conservatism generally holds the halcyon past in greater esteem than an uncertain future - hence Trump's slogan - and its adherents tend to favor tradition over change or progress.
Baldwin and Lammers point out that this ideological inclination directly contrasts with most climate change narratives, which are often very future-oriented. They cite a statement by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as an example.
"The clear and present danger of climate change means we cannot burn our way to prosperity," he said. "We need to find a new, sustainable path to the future we want."
The authors of the study hypothesized that focusing climate change messages on unfavorable comparisons with the past would elicit a more positive reaction from conservatives. To test this, they performed seven studies in which participants read information, or looked at photos containing some variation of climate change information, whose perspective was trained on the future or the past.
Participants who had identified themselves as either liberal or conservative later reported whether they characterized their attitude in receiving the information as positive or negative.
Baldwin and Lammers' findings were consistent with their expectations.
"We predicted and found that past-focused environmental comparisons are more effective in convincing conservatives of the need to act against climate change," the study reads. "In fact, the meta-analysis showed that past comparisons bridged the political gap in our studies by 77 percent on average."
The findings indicate that re-framing the way we present messaging about climate change could prompt many conservatives into adjusting their view of the issue.
"If [Trump's] administration were to be reminded that one of the ways America was great was that the land and air were cleaner, that many animals going extinct today were thriving, and that people could enjoy skiing every winter without worrying about the lack of snow, reversing the effects of climate change to get us back to that place might become a priority," Baldwin pointed out.
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Dr. Sean Anderson, a professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands, frequently uses this approach with his students and has found it to be quite effective.
"When I talk about changing landscapes, I use old photos, 100 years or more, that show a degraded grassland or forest and ask folks what year they think that is," he explained. "Then I show a modern, verdant picture to say that all impacts were not made in the last few decades."
"When we all see how big our impacts were back in the day, it both gives context to our discussions and makes everyone feel less defensive," Dr. Anderson added. "Conservation science is as much about understanding and honestly connecting with people as it is about knowing your biology and chemistry."
It often seems as though conservatives and liberals are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the environment, but that wasn't always the case.
"The Republican Party of the past was more pro-environmental than we might think," Baldwin noted. "So even drawing a connection back to the sort of 'superstar' Republicans and their efforts to protect the environment might be more effective than presenting a doom and gloom argument for curbing global warming."
Baldwin and Lammers concluded that changing the way we present environmental information to conservatives is the key to making climate change a bipartisan issue.
"We think that conservatives would be more likely to prioritize a call to return to the past status quo," they wrote, "even if that call was something considered typically liberal."
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