Bob Seger – It’s Your World
Marvin Gaye – Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)
United States citizens have complex attitudes about environmental issues, but in some ways there appears to be consensus. Over 74% of U.S. adults state we should do “whatever it takes to protect the environment.” Likewise, 69% of registered U.S. voters say we should participate in international agreements to limit human-caused climate change. But, beneath the surface there’s a relatively deep divide. While 90% of Democrats say we should do whatever it takes to help the environment, only 52% of Republicans agree. Although 86% of Democrats state we should participate in international agreements, only 51% of Republicans say the same. Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that energy and environment issues tend to rank as less important to the U.S. public than a clear majority of other government considerations.
The lack of public concern is perhaps in part because we aren’t discussing environmental issues as a society enough, including with our friends and families. During the lead up to this year’s presidential election, a number of weekday nightly newscasts very rarely discussed major social issues, including NO discussion of trade, healthcare, climate change, drug abuse, poverty, or guns. Similarly, less than half of U.S. citizens say they hear climate change discussed in the media once a month or more, and 68% state that they only hear the issue of climate change discussed among people they know several times a year or less. Recent evidence suggests this may be in part because people overestimate how many people in their social circles do not believe in human-caused climate change.
The silver lining of these facts is that some people do actually make an effort to engage others over environmental issues. My colleague Kaitlin Raimi and I recently explored who tries to engage others in environmental conversations, who tries to influence others’ environmental actions, and how they try to do so (link to published article here; link to accepted version here). In particular, we identified people who were high on "environmental moral exporting" (i.e., people who try to influence others’ environmental beliefs) and/or high on "environmental belief superiority" (people who believe they have the correct answers to environmental problems). We developed a new measure of people’s environmental moral exporting (which you can take here) by drawing from the political psychology literature, and we used Dr. Raimi’s already developed measure of environmental belief superiority. The overarching goals were to characterize and understand people high in either environmental moral exporting or environmental belief superiority, and determine whether people high in these traits engage others in conversation about environmental issues and try to influence others’ environmental actions.
We also found that people high in environmental moral exporting were open to having two-way environmental conversations with others; people high in environmental belief superiority preferred to dictate the terms of conversations. Interestingly, people high in environmental moral exporting or environmental belief superiority were both likely to state at least occasional frustrations when engaging others. Finally, people high in environmental moral exporting stated that, even though sometimes frustrated, they generally enjoyed engaging others over environmental issues; this was not true for people high in environmental belief superiority.
Did these individuals try to influence the actions of others? Although people high in environmental belief superiority did try to influence others’ environmental actions, they tended to do so in ways that allowed them to easily control the interaction (e.g., emailing others, posting on social media, commenting on internet articles). Meanwhile, people high in environmental moral exporting explored all of the possible routes in order to influence the environmental actions of others, including the aforementioned routes but also through casual conversation, modeling of appropriate behavior in public locations, and active persuasion attempts. People high in environmental moral exporting were also more likely to state they were willing to confront people actively engaged in harmful environmental actions (e.g., stopping people from wasting energy or throwing away recyclables), and believed their actions could effectively influence others.
Now, all of the measures we used in the study were self-reports – we were unable to directly observe individuals during interactions to classify them as high or low in agreeableness, high or low in efforts to influence others’ environmental beliefs and behaviors, or code their conversations. Future work should replicate these findings while studying actual behavior. Future research should also examine whether we can inspire people to increase their engagement in environmental advocacy and environmental conversations, particularly in ways that are effective and respectful of others’ beliefs. For example, some of the items from the environmental moral exporting scale are less than praiseworthy items, such as “People with different cultural backgrounds than I have should take time to appreciate the views of people like me on environmental issues.” We need to inspire people to talk about environmental issues with each other, but not at the expense of mutual respect. These questions, and others, are worthy of future exploration.
What do you think?