Communicating Renewable Energy to a Conservative Audience
Executive Summary: Framing and Misinformation
Research has shown that people who identify as “conservative” are more receptive to communication that is framed to match their sense of moral values. Here in brief are the key points to remember when advocating renewable energy to a conservative audience:
- “Renewable” Energy is preferable to “Clean” Energy or “Green” Energy
- Mentioning “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” is not effective
- With a religious audience, “Protecting God’s Creation” and “Protecting our Children” are effective
- Themes that are effective: freedom of choice, self-sufficiency, national security, economic benefit, and innovation
Also, advocates who are invited to discuss renewable energy may be confronted with misinformation about the subject. Although it can be very difficult to alter information once embedded, here are some key things to remember when responding to such claims:
- Rebut claims quickly – interrupt!
- Avoid repeating falsehoods, rather repeat the truth; avoid using negatives
- Call out the undisclosed motivations and connections of the mis-informer
- Be conscious of the current context: reception of words may change
Renewable energy is an interesting case study of framing because the issue enjoys wide public support across partisan lines but for different reasons. If an advocate understands the underlying framework that allows conservatives to consider renewable energy as an issue deserving political support, they can better communicate extemporaneously about the subject and even help instruct conservative supporters how to talk about it with their friends and neighbors. This understanding is also helpful for fighting against misinformation that seeks to frame renewable energy with undesirable characteristics.
Political communication is made more difficult by the diversity of thought found in an audience. Regardless of the partisan leanings of an individual, all people are limited in the degree to which they can assess the information they receive. Most people are too busy to engage with ideas in a methodical and deliberate way—it simply would take up too much time. People create shortcuts which they rely upon to make economical judgments about the relative value of information, and they confirm those conclusions with people they know and trust. Through this process, people build a framework they use to interpret the world. This framework takes on moral characteristics which “excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.” It is important for an advocate wishing to communicate effectively to understand this framework and learn to adjust their language to better match the subconscious assumptions of their audience. This is often hard to do because advocates tend to think of their own framework as objectively true, and that the work of persuasion is to convince others to adopt their framework. Trying to persuade in this manner is a losing battle for an advocate. It is more effective to reframe arguments that appeal to the hard-won moral framework of the conservative audience.
“Renewable” Energy rather than “Green” or “Clean” Energy
In creating shortcuts to understand issues, a person will sort issues into “liberal” or “conservative” categories. Partisan leaders, knowingly or not, have marketed themselves as being best-suited to handle certain types of issues based on their moral framing. In this way, conservatives “own” issues concerned with national security and economic responsibility, while liberals “own” the environment and health. Using the term “renewable” to talk about energy evokes themes of thrift and economic responsibility, while the terms “green” or “clean” evoke themes of health and the environment. In a survey, liberal Democrats preferred the term “clean energy” over “renewable energy” by 16 percent (99 percent vs. 83 percent), but conservative Republicans preferred “renewable energy” to “clean energy” by 17 percent (63 percent vs. 46 percent). The term “clean” may be perceived more positively by conservatives in another context, as will be explained later.
With the “renewable energy” frame, conservatives are surprisingly supportive of policy prescriptions. A study found that 77 percent of Republicans support research and development for renewable energy, 79 percent support using renewable energy, and 70 percent support tax rebates for people as an incentive to use renewable energy. On the tax rebate question, a full 50 percent of conservative Republicans support the measure. A majority, 71 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of conservative Republicans, support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2050.
“Global Warming” and “Climate Change” are non-starters
This issue ownership process has delivered the terms “global warming” and “climate change” solidly into the liberal category of issue ownership. One survey found that when people were asked whether “global warming is happening,” 95 percent of liberal Democrats agreed, while only 41 percent of conservative Republicans agreed. Another survey found a similar split, with 92 percent of liberal Democrats but only 38 percent of conservative Republicans believing that there is “solid evidence” in support of climate change. When asked whether “global warming is mostly human-caused”, only 25 percent of conservative Republicans agreed. While talking about renewable energy in these terms is not likely to win over a conservative audience, the strong support for renewable energy using a conservative framework may be one way to open a conversation with conservatives about the relative externality costs from different forms of energy. While 57 percent of conservative Republicans deem coal to be harmful to human health, only 8 percent consider wind energy harmful, and 6 percent deem solar to be harmful to human health.
“Climate Change” framed for religious conservatives
Although “climate change” as a term may not be well received, there are ways to frame the issue using different language that may resonate with a religious conservative audience. A study of Christians found that framing the issue as a moral one where people ought to be responsible steward of “God’s creation” had significant resonance. The study suggests that messengers with moral credibility, such as a pastor or priest, can frame climate change in moral or religious terms with their community. The study also found that a significant number of all respondents, both Christian and non-Christian, chose “to provide a better life for our children and grandchildren” as the most important reason to reduce global warming. In this context, the word “clean” when applied to air and water may connect with a religious conservative because it is used to express responsibility to a higher authority or to a future for one’s in-group rather than an unnecessary burden put on business growth and competing against foreign adversaries.
Themes that resonate with conservatives
Conservatives tend to adopt a moral framework that is premised more on themes of loyalty, authority, and independence or liberty, while liberals tend to base their moral views on themes of care and justice. As mentioned earlier, people interpret messages in different ways based on their underlying values, and these values are influenced by their personality and environment. By describing renewable energy as an issue of being free to choose among energy options, and stressing that renewable energy increases self-sufficiency, the issue is more likely to resonate with the sense of liberty as a core value within a conservative moral framework. Similarly, explaining that renewables contribute to decreased reliance on foreign sources of energy and increased national security speaks to the value conservatives find in loyalty to one’s in-group. Loyalty can also explain why stressing the importance of keeping up with new innovations is prioritized for conservatives. Our country is the in-group, and it would be disloyal to cede technological advances to foreign powers. It is our patriotic duty to promote good jobs and better scientific achievement right here at home.
Appeals to authority are also a useful tactic for communicating with conservatives. Theodore Roosevelt was an avid environmentalist and outdoorsman who understood the importance of American public resources. Richard Nixon oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Barry Goldwater, Jr., is a major proponent of solar energy in Arizona and California. By linking renewable energy to these conservative role models, an advocate can make the issue one that is “owned” by conservatives.
Another useful framework for understanding conservative thought is the concept of the nation as a family, with the government as a parent. Within this framework, conservatives consider the government to conform to a “strict father” frame, whereas liberals consider the role of government to be a “nurturant parent.” The “strict father” view is hierarchical—God above man, man above woman, America above other countries—a concept which lends itself well to American exceptionalism and conservative thought. Renewable energy in this context is a way for America to assume its rightful place as the leader in new technology. This frame also puts the emphasis on individual accomplishment over collective effort. By allowing people to choose renewable energy with modest incentives, the government is helping people to act for themselves to achieve self-sufficiency. Using these related frameworks to understand conservative values can help an advocate more casually communicate about renewable energy in an effective way.
Although it is tempting to try to rebut misinformation with a recitation of facts, research shows that it is not very effective. The fact is that it is very difficult to uproot information once it has been deeply entwined in a person’s moral framework. Therefore it is important to rebut information promptly and directly when the opportunity arises. Studies show that it may be effective to point out the source of the misinformation as being self-interested. In the Fox News reporting on the Green New Deal, for example, it is never mentioned that the advocates against the policy receive extensive funding from the fossil fuel industry. Sources matter, and revealing the motivations of a messenger can help an audience reframe the information as less reliable. When framing the message, using negatives can backfire. People will tend to remember the very thing that a rebutter is trying to dismiss.
Misinformation about Renewable Energy
The most effective way to push back against misinformation is to not have it happen in the first place, but most times an advocate has to be content to respond quickly before the ideas become embedded in the framing of the audience. Failing to define an issue opens an advocate up to having it poorly defined or deliberately defined as something contrary to an audience’s values. An example of this can be seen with the formation of opinions around the Green New Deal.
Through a coordinated media campaign and especially through the medium of Fox News programming, petroleum energy advocates successfully altered conservative opinions about the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal as it is understood today refers to a group of policy recommendations that culminated in a U.S. House of Representatives resolution sponsored by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February 2019. Among the proposals is to help meet the nation’s climate goals “by dramatically expanding and up grading renewable power sources.” Before this resolution, the term “Green New Deal” had been used by various journalists and politicians but had not reached great acclaim. When a survey asked about the individual components within the policy in December 2018, 75 percent of moderate Republicans and 57 percent of conservative Republicans supported the goals of the resolution, which include generating 100% of the nation’s energy from renewables, investing in technology research, and providing job training. When asked again in April 2019, support for the Green New Deal dropped to 64 percent among moderate Republicans and 32 percent among conservative Republicans. Among frequent Fox News viewers, support for the policy dropped from 54 percent to 22 percent, showing that Fox News viewership was a “significant predictor of both familiarity with the Green New Deal and opposition to it, even when controlling for alternative explanations.”. In this period, Fox News broadcasts about the Green New Deal were more than triple the combined number of segments aired by its counterparts MSNBC and CNN.
These messengers effectively framed the Green New Deal as a “liberal owned” issue. Ridicule of the young Congresswoman who supported the resolution resonated with the hierarchical sense of male superiority. Hyperbole was used to describe how the policy would “dramatically increase the size of government,” appealing to the desire for liberty from government interference. Spokespeople claimed the policy would cause “immense harm to the U.S. economy,” would “increase national debt by trillions of dollars,” and falsely stated that renewable energy would be “expensive and unreliable.” It is important to notice that all of these moral frameworks appeal to a conservative audience even though they are factually incorrect.
Communicating about renewable energy with a conservative audience is not difficult once an advocate has internalized the moral framework through which people assess information. By emphasizing freedom of choice, economic rewards, and the benefits to the nation, conservatives will find that renewable energy is an issue they can readily support. Advocates who continue to use these frameworks can help make sure that people of every partisan stripe can realize a better future.
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