Skip to content

Why Few Americans View Climate Change as a Moral Problem

–Guest post by Ezra Markowitz, doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon.

The moral judgment system—the set of cognitive, emotional, social and motivational mechanisms responsible for producing our perceptions of right and wrong—has been receiving a lot of attention recently, only some of it good. A slew of best-selling books, dozens of exciting new research findings, and a host of current events have converged to produce a rapidly growing interest in the role that moral judgment and intuition play in shaping everything from the effects of “green” products on ethical decision-making to growing political polarization. Research on the shortcomings and short-circuiting of the moral judgment system has been of particular interest, propelled in part by a seemingly endless stream of juicy scandals and unsavory behavior—financial, political, personal or otherwise.

Building on this work, Azim Shariff and I (among others) have been exploring what research in the field of moral psychology can tell us about public (dis)engagement with climate change, another topic that has seen an explosion of research in recent years. In particular, we have been interested in why—despite a growing chorus of moral philosophers, political theorists, religious leaders and others calling for recognition of climate change as a moral imperative (see here and here for recent examples)—many people appear to lack strong moral intuitions about the issue, the kinds of feelings that drive concern and compel us to action.

Why doesn’t climate change trigger the moral judgment system? The answer, we think, has a lot to do with the interaction between certain features of climate change on the one hand and how the human moral judgment system operates on the other. As Azim and I lay out in a recently published paper in Nature Climate Change, at least six distinct yet closely related processes likely contribute to weak moral intuitions about climate change. Here’s a quick recap of what we write in the paper:

1)  First, for most people, climate change is a complex, distant (for now) and abstract phenomenon; as a result, it tends to produce fairly limited emotional reactions in people, starving the moral judgment system of the emotional input that it relies on.

2)  Second, the moral judgment system is finely tuned to recognize specific types of moral transgressions, such as intentionally performed actions that cause harm to identifiable victims; yet as the philosopher Dale Jamieson and others have argued, climate change lacks many of these features: its victims are by-and-large strangers or not yet alive and it is a side-effect of modern life, not something anyone is intentionally trying to cause (there is no single moustache-twirling villain we can blame).

3) Third, Americans (in particular) are exposed to a lot of messages blaming them for causing climate change, many of which seem designed specifically to make people feel guilty; yet we are highly motivated to view ourselves as good, moral people. To maintain such positive self-assessments, people engage in a host of motivated moral reasoning techniques, many of which operate outside of conscious awareness. The net result is that instead of changing either their views of themselves as good or their harmful behaviors, people tend to reject those messages of blame and the issue behind them.

4) Fourth, uncertainty regarding the timing, severity, and location of future climate change impacts provides room for overly optimistic beliefs about the issue, allowing individuals to avoid feeling obligated to do something about the problem until the uncertainties are resolved (which of course is unlikely to occur any time soon).

5) Fifth, because the victims of climate change live faraway in both space (from Americans) and time, they are likely to be perceived as out-group members and thus as less deserving of moral standing. Such perceptions further weaken moral resolve.

6) Sixth, much of the existing framing of climate change as a moral issue targets only a subset of people’s moral values, particularly those that are important to political liberals. As a result, potentially powerful triggers of moral intuition about climate change have largely been ignored by advocates and communicators, likely contributing to political polarization on the issue.

Of course there’s plenty more going on—perceptions of climate change are influenced by a wide range of micro- and macro-level factors, from how the issue is covered by the media to individuals’ worldviews to personal experiences of local weather extremes. The point I want to drive home is this: truly engaging with climate change as a moral issue—really feeling its moral significance viscerally—is no easy feat, regardless of how often we hear about the people and animals that will be harmed or the injustice of richer individuals and nations misappropriating a life-sustaining, common resource.

If climate advocates and communicators want people to perceive climate change as a moral imperative—and they should given that our moral intuitions are powerful motivators of action—then they’ll need to develop creative, evidence-based ways of confronting the challenges discussed above. As a starting point, Azim and I discuss six potential strategies in our paper:

1) Engage the full range of moral values that people hold; framing climate change as an issue that involves considerations of purity, respect for authority and others, and loyalty to one’s community and nation may help generate novel moral intuitions.

2) Focus messages on the burdens that can be avoided by addressing climate change (e.g., outbreaks of disease; drought-induced hardships) rather than on the positive benefits (e.g., a stable climate) that will be gained or lost by our (in)action; burdens appear to engage the moral judgment system more powerfully than benefits.

3) Motivate action through messages that generate positive emotional responses—including hope, pride and gratitude—rather than those that appeal to guilt, shame and anxiety; positive emotions may produce longer-lasting and more sustainable motivation to address the issue, in part by providing a buffer against motivated moral reasoning.

4)  Avoid linking action on climate change exclusively to extrinsic motives, such as job growth and economic stability; doing so weakens moral engagement by deemphasizing intrinsic values and motives.

5)  Find ways to bring the faraway victims of climate change into individuals’ in-groups; one possible way to do so is to highlight the goals and values that those victims share with people living today.

6) Highlight widely-shared, positive social norms—such as prohibitions against being wasteful—as a way to both increase pro-climate action and increase the salience of morally-relevant considerations in the context climate change.

Although engaging the moral judgment system on climate change won’t be easy, finding effective ways to do so has the potential to unleash a powerful and as-of-yet under-mobilized source of motivation for action.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

–Guest post by EzraMarkowitz, a doctoral candidate in Environmental Sciences, Studies and Policy at the University of Oregon and a research fellow with the Climate Shift Project at American University.  His research centers around the intersection of social and moral psychology, environmental conservation, communications and policy. Current projects include an examination of the “compassion collapse” phenomenon in the environmental domain, an analysis of cross-national climate change threat perceptions, and research on the dynamics and mechanisms of intergenerational environmental stewardship and reciprocity. Markowitz is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, a Gallup Research Scholar, a staff member at PolicyInteractive, and in Fall 2012 he will be a post-doctoral research associate at the Princeton University Institute for International and Regional Studies.

See Also:

Green Groups Rebrand Global Warming Around Public Health

Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Problem

Study Finds that Fear Won’t Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire

Study Warns of Boomerang Effects in Climate Change Campaigns


Up Next
Once upon a time, we were taught that people are basically rational—at least when they have to be, at the stock market, the voting booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the […]