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. 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.
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’). 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. 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.
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.