Exploring the Role of Political Identity on Climate Attitudes: Highlights from BECC 2013

Boarding the train to Sacramento for my fourth year at BECC, I glanced once again through the conference schedule, mapping out a game plan for how to possibly try and absorb the wealth of information being offered over the next three days. For those who are unfamiliar with the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference, it’s an annual event that gathers individuals, from across a range of sectors and disciplines, working to better understand and encourage low-carbon decision-making processes and behaviors.

As I looked out of the train window onto the fragile wetlands along Suisun Bay, I anticipated the opportunity to give a sneak peak of Climate Access’ forthcoming public engagement guide on climate preparation and the chance to connect with colleagues who also spend their time immersed in reflection and analysis about energy and climate issues. What I didn’t expect, based on my past attendance, was the number of presentations exploring the role of political identity in predicting climate and energy attitudes and behavior; a welcome addition to this year’s line-up.

All politics is moral

George Lakoff’s keynote address was no exception. Perhaps best known for his books Moral Politics and Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, the University of California-Berkeley linguistics professor kicked off the conference with a thought-provoking talk on the importance of frame-based narratives and how metaphors guide political ideology. Lakoff outlined his theory of how two distinct family frames influence how we come to understand the world: 1) the “strict father” model that produces direct causation thinking, which he sees as more apparent among conservatives and 2) the “nurturing parent” model that Lakoff believes leads toward systemic thinking more evident among liberals. He asserts that if you can get politically moderate people to think systemically, they’ll move to a more progressive view.

Lakoff also emphasized the idea that all politics is moral and that policymaking itself is dependent on the idea of supporting what one considers to be a morally correct course of action. He also asserted that while facts matter, facts alone are insufficient. Humans think in terms of frames, metaphors, narratives and emotions, and climate communicators need to think beyond messaging and consider the moral underpinnings of climate and energy policies.

Values, beliefs, and interests

I made a point of attending a session that had caught my eye on “Conservatives and Liberals: Political Affiliation and Marketing” and was intrigued by the research of Katie Ruiz, a senior research associate at E Source, a company that provides consumer relationship and efficiency program support to utilities. In her presentation, “A Tale of Two Cities: Marketing Energy Efficiency to ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ Customers,” Ruiz put forward a comparison of two regions that at first glance appear to be polar political opposites: New Berlin, PA and Boulder, CO. However, upon further investigation into attitudes around energy consumption, a number of bipartisan values began to emerge, including saving money, increasing comfort for one’s family and reducing waste. 

In response to the statement “I do not conserve energy,” 97% of Republicans and 99% of Democrats disagreed and displayed a similar cohesion around fiscal motivations for energy conservation. E Source found energy efficiency and renewable energy successes in both New Berlin and Boulder by paying attention to residents’ values, beliefs, and interests. The program was also able to effectively connect with their target audience by working with existing media outlets and messengers that were already trusted sources of information in the community.

Energy choices reflect our values

If identify-related concerns affect consumer energy choices, then those decisions are also reflections of one’s values. Dena Gromet, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, shared her research on “The Cost of Environmental Messaging On Demand For Energy Efficiency,” a study of consumer behavior and the role of environmental concern. Gromet conducted an experiment to see if environmental messaging would attract or repel participants from energy consumer decisions—in this case, compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid vehicles.

The study found that environmental labeling had a negative effect for those participants who identified as politically conservative, causing them choose the “standard” option (an incandescent light bulb or a non-hybrid vehicle) and reject the energy-efficient counterparts, even when the efficient option meant a monetary savings. The results indicate that energy consumption choices are driven by the political polarization of environmental concerns and that an understanding of an audience’s ideology matters when considering whether to make an environmental appeal for energy savings. Gromet asserts that a one-size-fits-all messaging approach is unlikely to be effective and that communicators should consider the values of different groups, as well as bipartisan values that bridge the ideological divide.

The culture of “green” lifestyles

Continuing the theme of how identity influences energy behaviors, I was intrigued by the research of John Axsen, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management. Axsen’s presentation, “Sustainable Lifestyles and Identities: Segmenting Consumers Based on Behaviors, Perceptions and Openness to Change,” which explored how knowledge of different lifestyles (i.e. the behaviors, objects and skills that shape consumer identity) can help us understand why people choose to adopt pro-environmental technologies and behaviors.

Based on a survey conducted in Canada and the U.S., the segmentation analysis examined individuals’ attitudes (one’s specific beliefs), values (one’s more stable perspectives), and lifestyles (one’s actual behavior). By exploring “green” lifestyles through a cultural perspective, Axsen and his fellow researchers found a broad variation in people’s engagement with, and perceptions of, green activities, as well as variation in how individuals exhibit green lifestyles. These lifestyle choices can also predict interest and involvement in environmental technology and policy support, which can lead to a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers to sustainable energy consumption.

The politicization of climate change may not be a new phenomenon, but its persistence warrants our continued attention. The research that stood out to me at this year’s BECC conference underscored the importance of understanding and building relationships with specific communities and target audiences. If George Lakoff’s assertion is correct that we think in terms of metaphors, then the way that each of us approaches climate change will be guided by our deeply held beliefs and by the messengers who affirm our values. Narratives that frame climate change in terms of worldview, and even morality, help communicators convey how engaging in low-carbon behaviors can be a way to live in accordance with our values.

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Meredith Herr