Look back, not forward, to connect with conservatives on climate, new study suggests.
By Marlene Cimons
Conservatives who dismiss science might see climate change differently if exposed to messages that evoke the more verdant past rather than an apocalyptic future, according to a new study.
“The trick is to present a very positive past standard, and then draw attention to the less positive present,” said Matthew Baldwin, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Cologne, whose latest research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“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,” Baldwin said. “It is much harder to avoid the reality of change when the comparison is to the beautiful planet in its ‘untouched’ form.”
These findings suggest a more effective way to convey climate science.
Communicating to this population, “which is disproportionately Republican and conservative, becomes particularly important and particularly challenging,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College who was not involved in the study. The findings “suggest the possibility of a key advancement in the framing of messages regarding climate change to a crucial group,” Borick said in an interview.
Baldwin and his colleague, Joris Lammers, conducted a series of online experiments drawing upon more than 1,600 participants in the United States. Conservatives responded more favorably to messages focused on the past, rather than on the future.
In one of the experiments, participants were randomly assigned to read a message about climate change that drew a comparison either between the present and the future (“looking forward to our nation’s future…there is increasing traffic on the road”) or between the present and the past (“Looking back to our nation’s past … there was less traffic on the road”). Subjects evaluated one of two messages and described their attitudes about the environment and climate change.
“Conservatives evaluated the future-focused climate change message less positively, whereas the opposite was true for the past-focused message,” the study says.
The scientists theorize that “future framing” may contribute to conservative cynicism, especially “when year after year, we don’t seem to get that close to death,” Baldwin said. “Conservatives might become rather skeptical of the science that led us to the conclusion that we are in trouble. Perhaps focusing on the possible negative future doesn’t drive home the fact that our Earth really has changed a lot.”
This strategy might also counter the argument often invoked by conservatives that today’s global warming is just another example of natural climate variations that have occurred historically.
“I would say that the natural variations argument comes from this sort of thing. First, the skeptics look at recent events and compare them to Al Gore’s version of the future and find no evidence of anything really bad happening,” Baldwin said. “Then, they can assume, ‘Well, maybe it’s just always changed like this, but nothing really happens.’”
Reframing the message “could have major benefits,” Baldwin said. Rather than saying, “We really need to act now, to stop the destruction that is occurring and move forward to save the future of our planet,” Baldwin suggested, “We really need to act now, to stop the destruction we have caused and get back to how our planet was before.”
In one of the study’s experiments, “We show people pictures of environmental change — for example, an image of a lake full of water, right next to an image of that same lake totally dried up,” he said. “Conservatives really respond to these images of drastic change from the more ‘perfect’ past. I can imagine doing something similar with extreme weather events as the focus. Following a large hurricane, for example, we could focus on how the planet in the past did not experience such events, and then create a contrast by saying something like, ‘Shouldn’t we work hard to return to a state of the planet where we don’t have to experience them anymore?’
“The framing should call for a return to the more desirable past, compared to an avoidance of the less desirable future,” Baldwin said
Interestingly, researchers found that past framing did not diminish liberals’ pro-environmental attitudes. “We are still working on figuring out why this is,” he said. “The past is inherently valuable to conservatives, and the future — at least one marked by drastic and progressive change — is inherently bad. But liberalism doesn’t seem to place any inherent value on the past or future. The focus is instead on ideals like egalitarianism, fairness, and justice. So liberals in our studies seemed to be pro-environmental no matter what frame we used.”
“There are many forces at play that compete with nostalgic longing,” Baldwin said. “However, as a nostalgia researcher, I can assure you that nostalgia is a force to be reckoned with.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.