Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site
  • Home
  • Vol 27 No 2
  • Appeals to caring and fairness alone can't bridge climate divide

Appeals to caring and fairness alone can't bridge climate divide



The election of Trump highlights the extreme political polarisation in the United States, and few issues are as tribal as climate change. From near bipartisanship in the 1970s, views on global warming among Republicans and Democrats diverged in the 1980s and widened into a chasm under Obama.

ChasmA Pew survey before the 2016 US election found 66 per cent of Clinton supporters said climate change was 'a very big problem', but only 14 per cent of Trump voters. This partisan divide has been remarkably stable, and it's resistant to education levels. A study by Yale psychologist Daniel Kahan shows people who score higher in scientific literacy and numeracy are actually more culturally polarised about climate change.

In Australia, we're not quite at this level of entrenched division, but political ideology still plays a role. From 2010-2014 the CSIRO surveyed Australians about their attitudes to climate change and found people with more left-wing orientations were 'more likely to be sure climate change was happening, were more worried about it, and thought it more important'. ALP voters were more likely to believe climate change was human caused than Liberal voters.

So what's going on?

Kahan, who leads Yale's Cultural Cognition Project in the US, argues that the environment in which climate science is communicated has become 'polluted' with 'toxic partisan meanings'. 'Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.' They're a badge of belonging, and we tend to conform with the views of our chosen clique.

If climate change were a short-term problem, polarisation wouldn't be so crippling. One side could push a solution through parliament, and by the time the other side took power it might be a non-issue.

But climate change is an extraordinarily long-term problem that requires massive investment in new infrastructure and consistent policy settings over many decades. It needs a supermajority of support so years of work isn't undone with each change of government. That means getting conservatives on board.

But how? Climate change has become largely a symbol of the Left. This was partly unavoidable. It's a natural fit with the progressive narrative of reform, the one that says our Western industrial way of life has deep flaws and needs a major overhaul.


"When progressives finally realised they needed a more morally compelling argument, they chose messages that were morally compelling to them: a focus on vulnerable victims, and equality."


Carbon dioxide spreads through the atmosphere, ignoring arbitrary national boundaries, so the theory of global warming promotes a globalist and universalist outlook. The most logical solution is international regulation, which some conservatives see as undermining the sovereignty of nation states.

Not to mention that the very existence of human-caused climate change is a damning indictment of unfettered capitalism and, in the words of economist Sir Nicholas Stern, represents 'the greatest market failure the world has seen'. Imagine you're a neoliberal conservative. How would you react to a theory that contradicts your most cherished beliefs?

On top of that, climate change entered the political arena through the lens of environmentalism and is still associated with a countercultural green movement. From early on, progressives proposed solutions that, while logical, also happened to reinforce their worldview (government intervention) and put forward arguments that appealed to their idea of what is persuasive (secular and rational discourse).

Even the measurements carry cultural baggage: environment NGOs argue that the 'fairest' way to compare emissions is per capita, which is premised on the ethics of egalitarianism, whereas conservatives tend to have a more hierarchal worldview. Then, when progressives finally realised they needed a more morally compelling argument, they chose messages that were morally compelling to them: a focus on vulnerable victims (stranded polar bears and poor Africans), and equality (social justice reimagined as climate justice).

Recent research into morals explains what the climate change story has been missing. In his book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies at least five moral foundations found across human societies: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. In surveys, progressives emphasise the first two morals — care and fairness — and downplay or reject the importance of the rest, whereas conservatives hold all five morals. Haidt argues progressives in Western democracies actually have a narrow palette of moral tastes, which explains why they find some conservative obsessions — such as concerns that ethnic diversity tears apart communities — so baffling.

They also misjudge conservatives as lacking compassion. Conservatives actually score highly on care, writes Haidt, 'but conservative caring is somewhat different — it is aimed not at animals or at people in other countries but at those who've sacrificed for the group'. So while progressives fret over subsistence farmers exposed to sea level rise in low-lying Bangladesh, conservatives worry first about loyal, local people — people like them.


"Haidt's work suggests morals are more diverse than just care and fairness, especially in traditional and religious societies. Climate change needs a broader palette of appeals because the political pendulum will never remain in the Left corner forever, or even very long."


How is the Left responding to this problem of polarisation? As in so many fields, ideas are imported from the US. One of the most influential thinkers is cognitive linguist George Lakoff. His bestselling book Don't Think of An Elephant argues that most people are 'biconceptual' — they have both progressive and conservative views — and Democrats should frame issues to trigger progressive morals. The best response to Trump, he writes, is a positive focus on care.

Another major influence is work on psychological values, interpreted through an organisation called Common Cause. NGOs are advised to promote the values of universalism (things like social justice, a world at peace and equality) and benevolence (helpfulness, responsibility), which broadly overlap with progressive morals.

In other words, the strategy to get more people to care about climate change is to get more people to think like progressives. Is that really going to build a supermajority of support?

Haidt's work suggests morals are more diverse than just care and fairness, especially in traditional and religious societies. It follows that climate change needs a broader palette of appeals because the political pendulum will never remain in the Left corner forever, or even very long. In fact, as an underlying driver of drought and wars over resources, climate change could trigger more conservative values. Threats from outsiders can activate loyalty to your own group and desire for authority. Support for action on climate change needs to survive periods of conservative rule, and that means it also needs a conservative vision and conservative values — even if progressives find their suggestions repugnant.

To paraphrase climate change communication expert George Marshall, it's time for progressives to back off, drop the eco-stuff, and encourage some climate conservatives to step up to the podium.


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, Donald Trump, Barack Obama



submit a comment

Existing comments

'The partisan divide on climate change is resistant to education.' Perhaps the greatest barrier to seeing Truth is the assumption that we already know it. And the greatest constituent of such non-rational assumptions is the bonding we made to traditions in our early years, particularly if they still seem to contribute to our well-being. Plato thought Reason was our greatest attribute, but as St Francis de Sales pointed out, our Will can often control what our reason accepts or rejects. 'A man convinced against his will, is of the same mind still.'

Robert Liddy | 03 February 2017  

Greg, I enjoy reading your articles. They are more well thought out than most paid journalists on the topic. Political power has changed hands in the USA and increasingly the western world. Those that have power point to discrepancies in climate science. This discussion like most political discussions today is going to be decided in the middle where everyone has an equal voice and a right to be heard. "Repugnant" is not a term that serves peace or trust or dialogue. It's unlikely to get the results you want at any time, and especially if you do not hold power. Perhaps the "progressives" need to rethink the approach. The challenge will be asking those who rally for action on climate change to demonstrate tolerance for those that don't. This is a problem because without the shifts you talk about, it is hard to see the climate change lobby winning any more hearts and certainly not any more educated minds. There is an even greater Australian shift coming our way. Electricity prices will double in the next 12-18 months. Gas bills will double as well. This is due to government incompetence but it will close businesses and cause havoc. South Australia will lose businesses to the rest of the nation because they cannot supply power. When Quebec tried to secede from Canada, business left and Quebec entered a 25 year recession. South Australia is forcing what business it has left in that state to leave. Their renewables targets and philosophy was criminally ill thought out and unsustainable for the society that we need energy security to support. So yes, parties need to be able to come together and discuss science. Keep on writing, I like your thinking albeit i do not always agree with your view.

Luke | 03 February 2017  

I have been observing the weather daily from 1965 .I have been involved in Climate Change studies since 1990 when the issue started to surface in the media. What puzzles me is that the evidence for human induced climate change is now irrefutable, backed by basic physics. Yet it seems almost impossible to convince those in power that the 'canary in the coal mine' is now warning us of the risk of significant impacts if we don't act soon. I don't like being labelled 'progressive' as I am conservative politically . Sadly Capitalism with its emphasis on economic growth without measuring the consequences to the environment, still holds sway in the advanced world. The developing world wants to have the 'goodies' we in the West have had for generations .It would take three earths to satisfy their demands so something has to give. I would like to see the Church take an even stronger stand against the rampant greed which is fuelling this upcoming disaster .To my mind it is the most pressing ethical and moral issue facing us. I firmly believe we will be asked; "How did you care for my creation?" when we face our Creator.

Gavin | 03 February 2017  

Appeals to Caring and Fairness never win with conservatives. They are "bleeding heart" attitudes. The left cannot do fear well either, they have less experience in this area. Like having an argument with a fool, they will reduce you to their level and beat you with experience. The way forward is a gradual joining of forces from the left, as a "fifth column" within the establishment, what the social democrats have attempted with great success for 200 years. When capitalists realise that enacting good climate policy actually makes them richer the left will win. The left have won almost every other battle over the last 200 years. If you think that statement is crazy, think about living in abysmal poverty, with no vote and no right to appeal to law, where life and death relied on the whim of the powerful. That was the C18th for most people. It is still the case for many in some countries.

Bruce | 03 February 2017  

Thoughtful comments, thanks all. Luke I think what you say about South Australia is interesting. Sometimes I wonder if it's better in the long run to aim for a moderately paced transition, rather than swinging to one side only to swing back again. Of course there's no way of testing as you can't run two identical experimental societies side by side and see the different outcomes, and the real world is always more complex than any labwork or theory can calculate. If you're looking for more good open minded questioning about liberals and conservatives on climate change I recommend David Roberts who writes for Vox. He's sceptical the divide can ever be breached, but his views are always balanced and not blindly partisan. Thanks for reading!

Greg Foyster | 03 February 2017  

Great article! Reminds me of the story re difference between opinion and truth - opinion on climate change so often flying in the face of truth. A certain person was of the opinion that because his electricity supply was based on hydro-electricity that when he flicked a switch water ran through the wires to his house and provided the lighting. Opinion but wrong! Reminiscent of some opinions on climate change particularly from the conservative ignorami.

john frawley | 03 February 2017  

Thanks Greg, really smart article. You put your finger right on it; this climate issue has been captured by the trendy, PC, quasi-Marxist, greenie-left, and as with other issues they have taken up (intolerance on free speech, anti-christianism, abortion, gender politics, gay-marriage etc etc) they are really surrogates for attacking the traditional values.virtues of western Judeo-Christian society (framed as old whit male domination). They almost always over-reach because essentially they are not interested in outcomes but undermining society and its leaders: very good examples are destroying the Rudd/Turnbull sensible carbon-trading scheme, destroying Gillard by insisting on a divisively high carbon tax, destroying Gillard`s region asylum agreement. On the climate front they are making energy over-expensive and un-reliable , and insisting on grossly impossible RETs, bearing in mind that nothing can be achieved by Australia alone without being a part of international accords like the Paris agreement; going it alone beyond that is just more gesture destructive politics. And very alienating to the majority, nd inevitably ending up with Tump-figures...which is perhaps what they want to encourage their class wars.

Eugene | 03 February 2017  

Nicely expressed article persuading the more eco-savvy to be irenic and conciliatory toward the eco-crass. Perhaps, pulling back from the harsh facts could also alleviate the stress on those who worry, with good cause, about humanity's future? Yet: is this the right time for appeasement? After all, traffic rules apply to those of all political persuasions; as do air-traffic and marine navigation rules; not to mention narcotic trafficking and quarantine laws. The science is clear. Our situation is so very serious we need every able-body on deck to push and push and push again for appropriate eco-preservation legislation and for material help for those already suffering loss from anthropic eco-degradation. That's why Pope Francis gave us 'Laudato Si'. The eco-crass promoters of western aggressive techno-industrial commerce (WATIC) are determined and have immense wealth, political, PR and media power. It's a David and Goliath situation. I pray David will not lose faith.

Dr Marty Rice | 03 February 2017  

Let us not get over excited by the exaggerations of global warming (which is real but slight) being largely caused by anthropogenic CO2. Meteorologist, Roy Spencer (Uni of Alabama) points to Pacific decadal oscillation as the main cause. Geologist David Archibald (read his book ' The Past and Future of Climate Change) points to sunspot activity and Earth magnetic field fluctuations as contributing factors to global warming. Clinate change is natural and thank goodness we are not in a global cooling phase! Remember that CO2 is plant food!

Gerard Tonks | 03 February 2017  

Don't see how plants are going to be starved of CO2 food if we take global warning seriously. Can't manage 'polite and respectful' about such, perhaps throwaway, comments. Stop.

Jaq Spratt | 28 May 2017