by Sam Crawley
It is rapidly becoming clear that a range of environmental problems facing society require urgent attention. The UNFCCC, for example, recently remarked that, as a result of climate change “[h]uman health and livelihoods are being devastated, unique ecosystems are being irreparably damaged, and many species have become extinct.” Other issues, such as plastic pollution, do not receive the same level of media attention as climate change, yet are nonetheless having disastrous impacts on the environment. In a paper detailing the problems created by plastic pollution, Roland Geyer et al. concluded: “humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of [plastic] material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet”.
Government action is central to any credible response to these environmental problems. While the choices and actions of individuals are also important, government policy is required to ensure environmental action is coordinated across all regions of a country and all sectors of an economy. Action by governments will also need to be sustained over a period of years or decades, and may amount to a substantial transformation of society. Such an extensive and ambitious government programme requires broad public support to legitimise it, especially in democracies.
What the public thinks about environmental action, therefore, matters. Exploring people’s environmental attitudes can help us to get a better sense of the nature of public support for environmental action. In particular, insights can be gained by investigating why people hold particular environmental attitudes. For instance, what is driving the backlash against environmental action seen in some parts of the world? Is it that people are concerned about the economic impacts of environmental action, or is it something more?
There is some evidence which suggests that concern about the economic consequences of environmental action make people less likely to support it. However, given the large-scale changes to society that are likely to be required to address environmental issues, we could expect people’s ideology or worldview to contribute to their degree of support for environmental action. For example, people hold different beliefs about the relationship between humans and nature, the extent to which the government should be “interfering” in the economy, or what constraints should or should not be placed on a person’s “way of life”. These beliefs may strongly influence how much a person supports environmental action.
Consistently, and in a variety of contexts, people who place themselves on the right of politics have been found to be less likely to be concerned about the environment or to support environmental action than people on the left. Similar patterns can also be found among political parties, where left-wing parties are typically more engaged with environmental issues than right-wing parties. This link between left-right political orientation and environmental attitudes is found in the majority of developed countries, suggesting that aspects of conservative political ideology tend to lead people to take a negative view of environmental action.
However, what is less clear is which specific aspects of conservative ideology relate to environmental attitudes. Conservative ideology, although oriented around resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, is not homogeneous. In particular, there are different economic and social aspects of conservative ideology that are not held equally among all conservatives. Some conservatives may orient their worldview primarily around economics (and support for free-market principles), while others may hold strong conservative social attitudes, such as right-wing authoritarianism and exclusionary attitudes. Moreover, researchers have begun to explore specific environmental aspects of conservative ideology, such as “ecological dominance orientation” (EDO).
In what follows, I briefly expand on what the economic and social aspects of conservative ideology are, and examine what the evidence says about the link between these attitudes and support for environmental action. The insights from this research can help us to understand why we sometimes see a backlash to environmental action, and what the prospects are for an expansion of public support for environmental government policy. I also discuss how expanding research on concepts such as EDO might deepen our understanding of the link between conservative ideology and environmental attitudes.
Support for free markets and opposition to welfare
Since the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s to early 1980s, many conservatives have held a strong preference for free-market economics and “small” government. These preferences tend to manifest as support for cuts in government spending, reduction in social welfare and lowering of tax. Arguments in favour of such preferences are often based on the presumed superiority of free-market approaches to economic management. Additionally, people supporting free markets often appeal to ideas of individual liberty to support their position.
Free markets are not universally supported among conservatives, however. For example, populist right-wing parties and their supporters often endorse some level of government welfare spending. However, on this view, support for welfare spending is usually conditional on the spending being targeted at particular “in-groups”. Any aversion to environmental action among conservatives who do not favour small government may thus be linked to their social attitudes, as explained in the next section.
Support for free markets has an obvious natural tension with environmental action. Taxes and government regulation are generally agreed to be necessary to combat major environmental problems such as climate change, due to the high levels of social coordination and change required to address them. Research in a variety of contexts has backed up the hypothesis that people who support free markets are generally less likely to support environmental action. Studies have examined conservative economic attitudes such as opposition to social welfare, government spending and intervention in the economy, and support for tax breaks and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. Across a range of (mostly developed) countries, the results are consistent: people who hold conservative economic attitudes are less likely to care about environmental issues and are less likely to support action on the environment.
Right-wing authoritarianism and exclusionary attitudes
Many conservatives hold particular beliefs about how society should be structured, such as right-wing authoritarianism and exclusionary attitudes. Right-wing authoritarianism includes a preference for strong leaders, law and order, and traditional values, while people with exclusionary attitudes may hold anti-minority or anti-feminist views. Exclusionary attitudes can be understood through the lens of “social dominance theory”. Developed by psychologists Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, social dominance theory holds that society tends to be composed of group-based hierarchies. Conservatives are frequently supportive of such hierarchies, or, more precisely, have high levels of “social dominance orientation”.
In contrast to support for free market principles, these conservative social attitudes do not have an obvious link to support for environmental action. On the surface, there is no reason to suppose that a person who prefers strong leaders, strict law and order, and rigid social hierarchies would be less likely to support environmental action. However, extensive survey research has shown that people who hold these conservative social attitudes are substantially less likely to support environmental action than those who do not hold strong conservative social attitudes. As with the link to conservative economic attitudes, these results hold in a variety of countries. Moreover, the relationship between conservative social attitudes and environmental attitudes seems, in general, to be stronger than that between conservative economic attitudes and environmental attitudes.
As I expand on below, further work is needed to understand exactly why this link between exclusionary attitudes, right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation and environmental attitudes exists. However, the evidence suggests that both economic and social aspects of conservative ideology shape people’s environmental views. People who support free-market principles, oppose social welfare, or hold authoritarian or exclusionary attitudes are less likely to support action on the environment than those who do not.
The independent effects of economic and social attitudes, and the wider implications
One possible reading of the evidence described above is that the reason people with exclusionary attitudes or other conservative social attitudes tend not to support environmental action is because most social conservatives also support free market economics. This interpretation seems plausible, given there is no clear theoretical reason why conservative social attitudes should relate to environmental attitudes.
However, in a study published in the Journal of Political Ideologies, I examined both conservative economic and social attitudes, and found that they independently relate to environmental attitudes. In other words, whether or not people support free markets, if they hold conservative social attitudes, they are more likely to think negatively about environmental action. Thus, despite these two central aspects of conservative ideology being independent, and not held by all conservatives, they both seem to have a similar but separate influence on environmental attitudes.
Given these results, the reasons why people with conservative social attitudes are less likely to support environmental action need to be further explored. Three areas in particular could benefit from further attention. First, theoretical work could further explore how and why environmental attitudes and worldviews connect to conservative ideology as a whole, and especially to the social aspects of conservatism. Conservative social attitudes could well be closely related to a set of conservative ecological attitudes that have not been as widely studied as the conservative economic and social attitudes that I have described above. Such ecological attitudes include anthropocentrism, speciesism and ecological dominance orientation (the belief that nature is hierarchical, with humans at the top of the pyramid). It may also be worth considering whether environmental attitudes should be thought of as an independent dimension of conservative ideology rather than a separate, but related, set of beliefs.
Second, while EDO is a promising start, further work could develop and validate indicators of conservative ecological attitudes. Measures for similar concepts (such as social dominance orientation) took decades to develop, and to become widely used and accepted. An enhanced conceptual clarity and improved measurement could help us to understand changing environmental attitudes among conservatives. Not all conservatives reject (strong) environmental action, and concern about environmental issues may be growing among conservatives, as evidenced by the ‘teal wave’ seen in the recent Australian election, where several centre-right, pro-environment candidates were successful.
Third, while these links between conservative attitudes and environmental opinion have been clearly established in many developed countries, less is known about the relationship between conservative ideology and the environment in the developing world. The relationship between left-right orientation and environmental attitudes tends to be weaker in developing countries than in developed countries. Thus, we could expect to see differences in the patterns of environmental attitudes among conservatives when comparing developing and developed countries. Expanding the scope of this research could help to further define the nature of the link between conservative ideology and environmental attitudes.
The link between the social and economic aspects of conservative ideology and environmental attitudes outlined above go some way towards explaining the backlash against environmental action seen in some contexts. While majorities in most countries support action on the environment, substantial minorities do not. The resistance from such groups can pose a significant obstacle to ambitious environmental action. The highly visible “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vest” protests in France were triggered, in part, by a carbon tax on fuel. In New Zealand, the “Groundswell” movement is largely driven by farmers opposed to moving agricultural emissions into the country’s emissions trading scheme. While these groups could well be facing negative economic consequences as a result of environmental policy, it is likely that some members are also motivated by conservative social attitudes. In other words, they see environmental policy as a threat to their conservative values and way of life.
Finding a way to increase the breadth of public support for environmental action is, therefore, no easy task. However, a clearer and deeper understanding of the reasons for any resistance among the public can help provide a way forward. Framing environmental problems in terms of economics (for example, making the argument that the costs of inaction on climate change will far outweigh the costs of action) will find resonance with some conservatives. Others, though, will need to be reassured that environmental action will not leave them in a world that no longer has a place for them.
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