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Framing the Climate Crisis in a Moral Compass

January 31st, 2013 · No Comments

Global Warming. The Earth became the newest Waterworld.

This guest post comes from DWG.

President Obama made a strong call for action on climate change in his inaugural address. As in the past, he described the potential for economic growth in the transition to energy sources with a much smaller carbon footprint. He also framed the issue in moral terms.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.””That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

Even the stodgy Washington Post noticed.Since human contributions to climate change is the moral crisis of our age, it is worth looking at the importance of moral framing of the issue.

Morality is best thought of as the values we live by. As Darwin noted in Descent of Man, morality is rooted in how we treat others and our willingness to work for the greater good. Global WarmingSelf-centeredness impairs our ability to work together, solve complex problems, and respond to major existential threats. One of my favorite quotes from Darwin sums it up perfectly. “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.”

The we vs. me idea is the central theme to the president’s inaugural address. He states it eloquently in prefacing his remarks about climate change.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.”

As scientific evidence piles up for the adverse impacts of burning fossil fuels on our planet’s climate, the challenge becomes how to build public support for making the transition to cleaner sources of energy. The task has become even more difficult as the richest corporations in human history have sought to protect their profits by cleverly designed disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting climate science and confusing the public.Several recently published studies have examined different approaches to increase support for environmental sustainability. Both conclude that values matter.

The limits of self-interest messaging

Laurel Evans and colleagues from Cardiff University published a study in Nature Climate Change that compared the efficacy of self-interest and environmental protection messaging. Saving money was an effective motivator for participation in things like car pooling, but the effects did not carry over into other eco-friendly behaviors like recycling. By contrast, pro-environmental messaging was effective in increasing multiple eco-friendly behaviors.

Financial self-interest is commonly used as an inducement for energy efficiency programs. The researchers caution that this approach may be counterproductive when it comes to policies with little or no direct individual benefit.

Campaigns can have large target audiences and it is therefore especially important that they have the desired effect without unintended side-effects. Yet, campaigns highlighting financial motives to carry out environmental actions run the risk of decreasing environmental behaviour in other areas or over the long term. Highlighting self-interested reasons instead of or alongside self-transcending actions may undercut the ability of self-transcending values to guide behaviour. Although such campaigns may help to enact the targeted behaviour, they may also prevent people from enacting a range of behaviours that could otherwise have been shaped by self-transcending values.

The limits of self-interest messaging deserve additional study. I am particularly sensitive to the issue in working with Energy Impact Illinois. This program encourages residential and commercial property owners to invest in energy saving measures, particularly insulation and air sealing, which has the largest immediate impact on heating and cooling costs. Even though reducing energy consumption lowers carbon footprint, our grassroots efforts in the community focus exclusively on saving money. It is purely pragmatic because the money-saving pitch has been more effective in getting people to sign up for house parties, comprehensive energy audits, and targeted property improvements. I do wonder if we might be better served to at least list a smaller carbon footprint among the benefits of improving energy efficiency.Different strokes for different folks

Researchers Matthew Feinberg from Stanford and Robb Willer from UC-Berkeley examined values as a way of bridging the political ideological divide in a study published in Psychological Science (“The moral roots of environmental attitudes“). They found that different value-oriented approaches were effective in targeting progressives and conservatives. Progressives favored appeals to compassion and harm avoidance in environmental messaging; conservatives were more responsive to appeals to purity. It is about tailoring messages to appeal to the values of a target audience.

Along those lines, our research indicates that different frames regarding climate change can account for polarization among Americans on this issue. For instance, Hoffman’s (2011) content analyses of newspaper editorials found that believers and deniers of climate change frame the issue so differently that the two sides talk past each other, which likely contributes to the growing animosity each side feels toward the other (Bazerman & Hoffman, 1999; Chambers, Baron, & Inman, 2006). The current research suggests that reframing environmental issues in different moral terms offers one way to improve communication between opposing sides.

There was once a great deal more bipartisan support for environmental protection. Improving air and water quality was something everyone could agree on. Of course that was before big money politics and corporate personhood. The anti-regulatory fervor when it comes to the environment has been strongest among conservatives pushing the self-interest meme (the “I built this” crowd). They see greater prosperity for themselves if corporations are allowed the freedom to destroy the environment, perhaps because they believe that any negative consequences will be someone else’s problem.However, some conservatives do understand the moral imperative to protect the environment.

The current research may also help explain why many Christian groups, though traditionally conservative, have become proponents of the environment in recent years (Wardekker, Petersen, & van der Sluijs, 2008). Many of these groups perceive environmental degradation as a desecration of the world God created and a contradiction of moral principles of purity and sanctity, which motivates adherents to take pro-environmental stances. More generally, most of the world’s religions emphasize humanity’s role as stewards of the earth charged with keeping pure and sacred God’s creation (Wardekker et al., 2008). Thus, reframing moral rhetoric around the environment to fit with this religious tenet might be persuasive to many religious individuals, a possibility that could be explored in future research.

The president adopted this framing in his inaugural address (“That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”). It is an important nod to the “creation care” movement.The climate fight among evangelical Christians

It is tempting to view the evangelical community as monolithic, little more than loyal foot soldiers of the Republican army. In fact there is far more receptivity to the climate crisis that many of us probably realize.

The creation care movement among evangelical Christians gained enough momentum to put a scare in the rich and powerful. Organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Networksprang up and attracted a following, particularly among the young. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) caused a stir in 2004 when they listed creation care as one of seven principles of public policy engagement.

Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation. This involves both the urgent need to relieve human suffering caused by bad environmental practice. Because natural systems are extremely complex, human actions can have unexpected side effects. We must therefore approach our stewardship of creation with humility and caution.

By 2006, there was a strong push to address climate change as part of this stewardship principle. The Evangelical Climate Initiative quickly gathered signatures from nearly 100 leaders, including some big names like Rick Warren. Richard Cizik, then vice president of the NAE, was advocating official endorsement of the Evangelical Climate Initiative. In 2007, the Southern Baptist Convention was on the verge of endorsing its own set of environmental and climate change resolutions.Then came the backlash. Leaders of politically-connected “religious” organizations like Focus on the Family (James Dobson), Family Research Council (Tony Perkins), and the American Family Association (Donald Wildmon) demanded an end to these “divisive” and “demoralizing” environmental campaigns. These self-appointed paragons of virtue also demanded that the NAE fire Richard Cizik for his advocacy on climate change. Richard Land scuttled climate change resolutions by the Southern Baptist Convention. Ironically, this same cast of characters was instrumental in selling the Iraq war to religious conservatives in 2002.

Up popped the Cornwall Alliance, headed by Cal Beisner, to counter the budding creation care movement. It puts a religious spin on every climate change denial talking point and condemns any environmental regulation, while genuflecting to the glorious “free market.”

Think Progress dug into the Cornwall Alliance organizational structure and found connectionsto the fossil fuels front group, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). This attempt to follow the money, while valuable, was limited by the trickle of money coming into the Cornwall Alliance. On paper, their cash flow is only enough to pay for office space and salaries for a few key figures.

Perhaps a better strategy would be to follow the noise. Beisner appears regularly on radio and television programming of the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and the Christian Broadcast Network. His bread and butter is disinformation targeting conservative Christians subsidized by big money religious broadcasters. Here is a Beisner ditty from a recent appearance on the American Family Association’s radio show where he says God will be offended if we do not use fossil fuels.

Despite the repressive actions of religious media moguls, the creation care movement is alive and kicking in the evangelical community. More than 300 religious leaders have signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. That dwarfs the few dozen that have signed Cornwall Alliance pledge to do nothing about climate change apart from denial.

A few final musings

I would be remiss not to mention religious efforts to address climate change beyond evangelical Christians. One of the largest organizations to do so is Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), which has over 14,000 participating congregations across a wide range of theological perspectives. In my area, local affiliates of IPL have worked together to secure funding to improve energy efficiency in low income housing and other sustainability initiatives. IPL is also organizing a “preach-in” on carbon pollution and climate change for the weekend of February 8 – 10. It will include gentle reminders to the president to honor his pledge to address climate change.

At his first news conference after re-election, President Obama said, “I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.” So Preach-In participants will have the opportunity to send postcards asking President Obama to honor this pledge.

As an aside, Dr. Richard Muller, leader of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, has recently become active in IPL. Muller was a prominent skeptic but was converted by his own analyses funded ironically in part by Koch Industries.I applaud the president for highlighting climate change in his inaugural address and even adopting moral framing for why a response to carbon pollution is necessary. Now comes the hard part – taking action.

Vice President Biden popped into the Green Inaugural Ball to say a few words.

“I don’t intend on ending these four years without getting an awful lot more done. Keep the faith.”

Ah, faith. In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted the “ethical infantilism” that plagues our society. Ethical infants are people that tolerate injustices like racial discrimination, poverty, and military conflict. I doubt he would be surprised by the ethical infantilism surrounding climate change and the ability of corporations to shape the debate. I can only hope he was justified in his faith in humanity.

“I have the personal faith that mankind will somehow rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom.”

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Tags: climate change · environmental · Global Warming