Bridging the Environmental Gap

Wind farm outside of Palm Springs, CA

A recent survey by the New York Times found that most Americans, including over 50% of those who identify as conservative, “support governmental action to address global warming.” Why then do we see so little action taken by conservative politicians to do so? This survey offers a possible explanation – that the popular moral rhetoric around environmental protection appeals more to liberal audiences, and that by changing the rhetoric to appeal to conservatives could result in the changes we need for a large-scale collective effort.

The history of the environmental movement in the US is a complex one. Party polarization over the issue began as early as the 1960s. Today, the environment is seen as a liberal moral issue, but not as a republican moral issue. But there is nothing essentially “liberal” about protecting the environment, so why has it become a liberal moral obligation and not both a liberal and conservative one?

Not surprisingly, the media has played a central role in polarizing the environmental moral gap.

The New York Times conducted an extensive research project to analyze the moral content and language in American newspapers. The conclusion of this study was that moral rhetoric that describes protecting the environment as essential to protect “people and ecosystems from harm and destruction” resonates more with liberal readers than conservative readers. Further, it found that most arguments for environmental protection follow this same logic.

According to the NYT study, by contrast moral concerns including patriotism, respect for authority, sanctity, and purity are more powerful for conservative readers.

This evidence suggests that the popular moral rhetoric around the environment is a better fit for liberals. To test this idea further, the New York Times conducted a survey of three groups. The variable group received a “moral purity” based environmental message that focused on protecting the environment from “desecration,” so that the generations to follow could experience the “uncontaminated purity and value of nature.” There were also two control groups. One of these groups received a “conventional” pro-environment message, and the other received an article with no environmental references.

The three groups were surveyed after they read their assigned articles. The study found that the moral purity arguments were more effective among conservative readers:

“Conservatives presented with the purity message reported significantly greater support for pro-environment legislation than the control groups.”

Based on these findings, in order to win greater public support for pro-environmental policy, the language used should include the moral perspectives of both liberals and conservatives. This may be an effective way to bridge the environmental moral gap and create and maintain collective action to protect the environment.


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