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If you are liberal, you probably believe we should be doing more – a lot more – to curb environmental degradation. When you see someone throw a plastic bottle into a garbage can instead of recycling bin, you probably pass judgment, maybe even feel a little sick inside. If you are conservative, chances are you are more ambivalent about the environment. You’re not pro environmental degradation, but there are just other, more important issues we should be worrying about instead.

When you think about it, this is odd. Why does being green have anything to do with the left-right divide? (It wasn’t always this way – Richard Nixon was actually the one who founded the EPA.) This is the question that my colleague, Robb Willer, and I sought out to answer. We figured morality was playing a key role. Liberals care more about the environment because, for them, being green is being moral. We found evidence for this in a couple of studies.

For example, in one study we presented participants with a typical day in the life of Michael –going to the office, and relaxing after a hard day’s work, etc. But, we tweaked one detail: whether or not Michael recycled a plastic water bottle or threw it in the garbage. Then we asked participants to rate how moral they thought Michael was. Liberals rated non-recycling Michael as much less moral than the recycling Michael. Conservatives’ ratings were the same regardless of what he did with the bottle.

Of course, this does not mean that conservatives aren’t moral people. It just means that they focus their moral concern elsewhere. At least this is what recent work on the differences between liberal and conservative morality suggests. Psychologists Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt find that, relative to conservatives, liberal morality focuses more on preventing harm and caring for those in need, as well as ensuring fairness and justice. Conservatives, in contrast, are more concerned than liberals about loyalty to one’s group, respecting authority and tradition, and upholding physical and spiritual purity.

But how does this relate to environment attitudes? We hypothesized that pro-environmental messages likely cater to the more liberal moral concerns, especially concern with preventing harm and caring for those in need. Think about the majority of appeals you’ve heard to be green. Chances are they are based on concerns about preventing harm. We tested this hypothesis by having trained coders go through hundreds of newspaper op-eds and pro-environment commercials and rate which moral concerns they most appealed to. As you’d expect, we found the environmental messages catered to a morality that liberals ascribe to more than conservatives.

But, if arguments based in more liberal moral concerns compel liberals to care more about the environment, then shouldn’t arguments based in more conservative moral concerns lead conservatives to also care more about the environment? We tested this possibility by presenting conservatives with either the more typical “environmental degradation is harmful” argument or an argument based in purity moral concerns (“polluted air is impure and contaminates us when we breathe it”). Conservatives that read this purity argument showed more concern about the environment, demonstrated more belief in global warming, and were even more willing to support pro-environmental legislation.

These results help explain differences in environmental stances between liberals and conservatives and demonstrate how crucial it is to recognize that differences in political stances often stem from differences in moral concerns. Those who advocate for a different political position are not doing it because they’re ignorant or immoral, but because they’re coming at the issue from a totally different moral point of view. If you want to successfully persuade them to support your stance, best to argue in their moral terms.

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