To mobilize Trump’s America for environmental protection, invoke the past

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Here’s a tack that climate-change activist and former Vice President Al Gore might have tried when he visited President-elect Donald J. Trump last week: Maybe the best way to “Make America Great Again” would be to adopt policies that would return the nation’s environment to an idyllic past.

In that better yesteryear, a dad got home in time for dinner because he wasn’t stuck for hours on a highway jammed with cars. Hunting season didn’t start later — and yield less — every year. A gardener living in Zone 7 knew she could plant tulip bulbs in November and see them come up the following April. A family’s Christmas tradition of cross-country skiing was never canceled for lack of snow.

The policy changes needed to regain that happy past might be the same ones the nation might embrace if it wants to prevent a future of record-high temperatures and of weather events that are more frequent, costly and extreme.


But to conservative ears, says a study published Monday in the journal PNAS, policy recommendations on the environment might sound more appealing if they’re aimed at restoring a known and beloved past than if they’re required to forestall disasters in an uncertain future.

In a series of experiments aimed at demonstrating the influence of rhetorical “framing” on attitudes about the environment, a pair of psychologists from Germany’s University of Cologne show that some people quite willingly accept environmental policy appeals when such protections are cast as a bid to avert a grim future.

Others resist those appeals, but their resistance softens considerably when environmental protection is recast as a bid to regain cherished features of the past.

Conservatives, the authors found, are particularly likely to fall in this latter group. Faced with classic environmental policy prescriptions, they’re a tough sell. But when environmental messages conform to their natural inclinations to value the past and want to preserve or recapture it for the future, they become much more receptive.

Liberals tend to go for environmental appeals whether they look backward or forward, the new research says. But it suggests that appeals that focus on averting a disastrous future may be better at getting this end of the American body politic to reach into its pocket.

The psychologists’ findings offer some concrete advice for American environmental groups wishing to reach beyond their established support among liberals to recruit conservatives: Tap into the past.


Self-professed conservatives are, overall, much more skeptical than liberals of environmental protection appeals. But the new study reckons that when conservatives see messaging that frames environmentalism as an effort to reclaim a more pristine past, they close three-quarters of that initial gap between their own environmental views and those of liberals.

Recruiting more than 1,600 experimental subjects online, the authors of the new study conducted a series of manipulations aimed at gauging how environmentalists’ past and future orientations might change the light in which their proposals are viewed.

Subjects read the same broad statement on the environment — purportedly offered by a political moderate — but with different temporal reference points. The statement’s past-focused version expressed concerns about the present compared with “our nation’s past,” when roads had less traffic, the air was clean, and there was “plenty of land.”

The future-focused version expressed concern over a future with increasing traffic, polluted air and disappearing land. The past-focused version wraps up by suggesting we should “undo what we’ve done” and return to that better past. The future-oriented version urges we “stop what we’re doing” for a better tomorrow.

Self-identified conservatives tended to like the past-focused statement better than the future-oriented one. And those who read the past-focused statement subsequently expressed more pro-environmental views than did conservatives who read the future-oriented statement.

Subjects who considered themselves liberal expressed more pro-environmental views than did conservatives after reading either the past- or future-oriented statement. But the gap between conservatives and liberals was far narrower after both groups read the statement that focused on the past.


In later experiments using other subjects, the researchers gave subjects from the right and left of the U.S. political spectrum a small pool of donations and asked them to apportion the funds to two environmental charities and a cancer charity. They made up an environmental group with a future-oriented name and another whose name recalled a better past. For mission statements, they scanned the web and lifted the most future-oriented rhetoric from an actual environmental group and the most past-focused rhetoric from another. The cancer charity’s rhetoric served as a neutral middle ground.

Given the opportunity, conservatives gravitated first to the cancer charities with donations. But when it came to giving to the environmental groups, conservatives donated more to the past-focused charity than to the future-focused charity, and they anted up more than liberals did to that charity.

Conversely, liberals donated more to the future-focused charity than to the past-focused charity. And they, too, gave higher donations to that charity.

“Messages that are supported by scientific evidence are especially effective when acceptance of the message also means that one’s personal values can be upheld,” wrote the study’s authors, social psychologists Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers. “Messages concerning global warming and climate change are no exception: They need to be tailored with great care.

Over recent years, Baldwin and Lammers write, the message of climate change has been framed in many ways — from fatalistic predictions about the future to calls for social progress. And that might be a mistake, they added.

“Our research suggests that these messages will not be as effective in bridging the political divide if they continue to make future-focused comparisons,” they wrote. “Paradoxically, it is the past that may be critical in saving the future.”


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