Public engagement with energy and climate change can’t be easily reduced to a simple rule of thumb, but some aspects of human psychology are more fundamental – and explain more variation in attitudes and behaviours – than others. People’s attitudes on different topics may morph and shift over time; they may switch allegiances between different political parties and candidates; individuals may even express quite distinct ‘selves’ in different social situations and with different groups of people. But there are certain aspects of people’s psychological makeup that are relatively consistent and which form the core of their identities: their values.
Most people have an intuitive sense of what ‘values’ are, but the typical academic definition, of a ‘guiding principle in the life of a person’, provides a good starting point.
A programme of research that has spanned several decades, 44 nations and over 25,000 respondents has produced a robust body of evidence showing how values relate to engagement with climate change. The work of Shalom Schwartz and his colleagues has identified 56 ‘universal’ values which can be divided into distinct clusters that vary along two dimensions.
These two dimensions are openness to change versus a desire to conserve/respect tradition; and self-transcendence (i.e. values which go beyond self-interest, such as altruism or forgiveness) versus self-enhancement (i.e. self-focused values such as power, ambition and materialism). The research clearly shows that people who favour self-transcending values are more likely to be concerned about climate change and support climate policies.
Closely linked to the notion of values is the concept of worldviews. These are thought to exist on two cross-cutting dimensions and describe how much people favour different societal arrangements. The first dimension, hierarchy–egalitarianism, refers to people’s preferences around how equitably resources are distributed and social power relations. The second, ‘individualism–communitarianism’, relates to the question of whether individual interests should be subordinated to collective ones.
As with values, there’s a close relationship between different worldviews and engagement with climate change. People who hold communitarian views, and prefer egalitarian forms of social order, are less likely to be sceptical about climate risks.
Values and worldviews don’t map exactly on to people’s political ideology (there are self-transcending and self-enhancing values on the left and the right of the political spectrum), but there is a well-established relationship between political ideology and engagement with climate change.
Political conservatism predicts scepticism about climate change, for both individuals and the media – particularly, but not exclusively, in English-speaking countries. In the UK there is a direct relationship between voting for the Conservative Party and scepticism about climate change, with an even more polarised partisan pattern in the US and Australia.
The usual explanation advanced for this is that there is a conflict between certain conservative values – in particular those around free market paradigms and individualism – and policies to tackle climate change, which are sometimes described as ‘solution aversion’. Other work has looked at finding common ground between some of the values that define conservative belief systems and engagement with climate change and the energy system.
There are of course a plethora of other influences – individual, social and structural – that constantly shape public opinion. People don’t (or can’t) always act in line with their values – this is the infamous ‘value–action gap’ – but this does not undermine their importance. Over a broad enough range of situations, values are pretty good predictors of attitudes, and attitudes are still pretty good predictors of behaviour.
Given what is known about the consistent relationship between certain types of values and engagement with climate change, should climate communicators always try to frame their messages using self-transcendent values?
Is appealing to self-enhancing values (such as financial gain or status) an effective or a problematic way for climate communicators to build public engagement?
Are there limits to reframing climate change around politically conservative values? That is, are there certain elements of a free-market/individualistic/libertarian worldview that are incompatible with societal action on climate change?
By Adam Corner
Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.