What Moves Conservatives On The Environment? Show Them Pictures Of What Happens Without The EPA

If you’re a conservative, this image of Cleveland from 1973 taken before the Environmental Protection Agency started cleaning up our skies should make you care about the environment:

That’s according to a new paper from UC Berkeley, anyway.

In a study released this week, UC Berkeley researchers looked at how conservatives respond to messages about protecting the environment. Rather than being moved by the moral arguments that progressives often make, the study found that conservatives responded to images and videos within a “purity/sanctity” frame:

The purity/sanctity-themed article stressed how pollution has contaminated Earth and people’s bodies, and argued for cleaning up and purifying the environment. To enhance those themes and elicit disgust, the accompanying images showed a person drinking filthy water, a city under a cloud of pollution and a forest full of garbage. The neutral article talked about the history of neckties.

Participants were then asked to rate how strongly they felt certain emotions, including disgust, in response to what they’d read. Next, they reported how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “It is important to protect the environment,” “I would support government legislation aimed at protecting the environment” and ‘I believe humans are causing global warming.”

Overall, the study found that the purity-themed message inspired conservatives to feel higher levels of disgust, which in turn increased their support for protecting the environment.

Interesting. Let’s test out the study. Theoretically, that response to “purity” would make this photo of a severely asthmatic child living near a coal plant in Nevada an effective message for conservatives:

It would also make this photo of Pennsylvania resident Sherry Vargson lighting her methane-contaminated tap water on fire from fracking a pretty effective tool:

This picture of smog hanging over New York City in the 1970’s before strong Environmental Protection air regulations would likely have an impact as well:

My guess is that the pictures move you whether you’re progressive, conservative, or neither. No matter which type of messaging influences you — the “moral” argument or the “purity” argument — most of us can agree on the need for a clean environment and institutions like the EPA to preserve those standards.

Well, everyone except for lawmakers in Congress trying to kill the EPA.

32 Responses to What Moves Conservatives On The Environment? Show Them Pictures Of What Happens Without The EPA

  1. Ray Silva says:

    You MUST be dreaming!

  2. Jean Netherton says:

    I find it hard to comprehend that they need to be tricked into seeing what is in front of their eyes. It makes no sense.

    There is more we need to do. Please sign and share our petition.
    The petition reads:
    It is not enough that we the people shoulder the burden of reducing the carbon out put by buying more efficient cars, by buying solar panels, by buying mass transit tickets, or through the purchase of more efficient homes. These are all good things and good for business and I applaud these efforts – but it is not enough.
    Shut down the tar sands project in Utah before it begins. Reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Work to shut down the blight that is Canadian tar sands. Push the carbon tax and more.
    Because none of those other things we re-elected you for will mean anything if we can’t drink the water or breathe the air.

  3. That seems like it would work. However, I think that for many Conservatives, you are dealing with belief systems more like a religion than anything that would yield ground to rational analysis.

    Take the following for example:
    Forbes Magazine just published an article in which they named the 20 Dirtiest Cities in the US. A leader in many areas, California was also a leader in this, with 6 of the top 10 being in CA: Fresno #1, Bakersfield #2, Modesto #5, Riverside #6, San Jose #8, Stockton #9.

    We know that this is bad, but what does it cost? In 2006, California State University Economists Jane V. Hall and Victory Brajer published a study that bad air quality cost the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto, Stockton) over $3 Billion / Yr.

    In 2008, they published a similar study of S. Cal. in which they put the cost at $28 Billion. Conservative action? Attack the Studies and rail against the EPA.

    If we want to lower health care costs, clean up the air; if we want our industries to be more profitable, clean up the air; if we want better education results, clean up the air so that children don’t miss school due to asthma. The San Joaquin Valley is the center of Conservativism and almost all of their Congress Critters are Republican with a couple of Blue Dog Democrats. I relly don’t see that any of this is truly Conservative in any traditional sense.

  4. nitpicker says:

    I remember not too long ago a GOP congressman (I can’t remember which) saying that we didn’t need the Clean Air Act anymore, because our air was clean now. Which is like saying we can cut out our seatbelts, since we didn’t die in the last wreck we had.

  5. Nell says:

    It is awsome that I can see the mountains here in lala land. Sometimes crystal clear.
    Two decades ago I would not have been able to live here due to asthma.

    Cuyahoga River fire was a black swan, no?

  6. *** Dave says:

    It’s not trickery — it’s deciding how best to motivate and convince. Some people will be swayed by the visual (a picture is worth a thousand words), others by statistics on the volume of pollutants, others by stories of suffering. Nobody’s exactly the same in what will hit home.

  7. Ken G says:

    Interesting – but that does not look like Cleveland 1973. Most of the mills were dead by then. I was there then. The air in the Flats was clear.

  8. Aaron says:

    So bottom line, Conservatives need pictures instead of words? It’s the result of having infantile minds.

  9. Don Beams says:

    Let us face it. Conservatives in large part are extremely short-sighted and self-serving and driven by fear. Until they and their families are obviously affected and or damaged in some fashion, the problem doesn’t exist. And they are hugely defensive about what they own and their imagined status in the world. Every idiocy that they inflict on the world can be directly traced back to being not too bright, selfish and self-involved as hell and scared to death they are gonna lose something. Politicos pandering to these motivations can manipulate them endlessly, and lie to them without fear of being doubted.
    Makes it an extremely difficult proposition to deal with.

  10. John Glover says:

    I don’t even think pictures would help anymore. They know what photoshopping is, and they probably will believe any picture you show them will be fake. Heck, half of them believe the whole lunar landing thing was fake….

  11. Umlud says:

    Well, someone is wrong. According to The Atlantic‘s caption of this photo:

    Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue bridge, looking east from West 13th Street, obscured by industrial smoke, in Cleveland, Ohio, in July of 1973. (Frank J. Aleksandrowicz/NARA)

  12. bruce says:

    This is what the Rich want, more money. The Greed is controling and it’s okay to kill your fellow man.

  13. Linda says:

    I said something similar in the late 60’s to a group of unitarians. I had just listened along with them to a presentation about the new environmental protection agency established by Richard Nixon. I accused them along with the rest of the rich, of only being concerned about the “environment” when their backyard barbeques were being impinged upon by the creeping urban pollution.

    That hasn’t changed much to this day.

    When the movers and shakers in society finally are subjected to a fraction of what the rest of us have faced for centuries, something might change for the better. But, don’t hold your breaths…

  14. Mark Walsh says:

    It should be no puzzle as to why they dont care. They don’t care about the earth or other people. They are rich enough tolive elsewhere.

    That is why heavy regulation has to be forced on the selfish corporations. Otherwise we are responsible.

  15. Bill A says:

    Lets not forget its the modern REPUBLICAN , not the conservative that is against the EPA. Barry Goldwater was a staunch protector of the environment. Too many people in the Republican party say they are conservative but in reality they are just nut jobs.

  16. JJM says:

    The fire in the Cuyahoga in 1970 was a major turning point for a lot of people: a river caught on fire!

  17. Mitch Beales says:

    “Conservatives” may be moved more by “purity” arguments than “moral” arguments and more by pictures than by words but all are trumped by numbers preceded by dollar signs.

  18. rjs says:

    we had a picture of the flats not unlike that in a 1971 edition of an underground newspaper we published; i dont think cleveland was clean by ’73

  19. rjs says:

    wiki: “In 1984, Republic merged into the Jones and Laughlin Steel subsidiary of the LTV Corporation, with the new entity being known as LTV Steel.”

    LTV was still operating the mills in the flats at that time…i now recall i had a friend who worked there in the early 80s

  20. Brooks Bridges says:

    Also join me in DC at the 350 and sierraclub demonstrations President’s day – below. Also help this go viral.

    If anyone reading this has influence with an organization, try to get them involved also.

    Past time to hit the pavement. One lousy day.

    If you’d haver to fly, consider looking into renting a bus to ship students from NYC to DC in your place.

  21. Marie says:

    The conservatives have “convenient” memories. If history does not fit with their current narrative, they simply “forget” it.

  22. Jan says:

    Conservatives often produce poker like “tells” i.e. they exhibit the opposite of what is really in their hand.

    examples: 1. “conservative” label they apply to themselves, whereas they do not conserve either federal surplus (Clinton’s) or environment
    2. They call themselves “serious” about jobs and economy whereas they would risk it all to preserve tax cuts for the rich
    3. They pose as if concerned that our grand kids would have to”shoulder” a debt burden, but would throw them into a climate “fire’ to avoid disappointing their cronies.


  23. Tom P says:

    Stephen, I completely agree. Many conservatives are living in the right-wing echo chamber, wherein the loudest and most extreme (that is, simplest and most reductionist) voices man the P.A. system — Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, Coulter. As a result, conservatives reflexively hate a few big-government bogeymen, the EPA chief among them.

    But you CAN get them to agree that the EPA, a Richard Nixon creation first run with commendable vigor by Republican and ex-asst. attorney general William Ruckelshaus, cleaned up horrendous air and water pollution, and thus saved the nation’s health, environment, and economy.

    But they tend to say that today’s EPA has gone over the top, round the bend, and way beyond its mandate. With a couple of regrettable exceptions, this is simply not true. Under Bush and Cheney, the EPA was kept on a short leash, muzzled, and even confined to a dog house built by Republican lawmakers — note, for example, the exclusion of natural-gas exploration via fracking from the Clean Water Act in 2005. (Anybody who voted for that should be required to have it inscribed on their tombstone.)

    Nowadays the conservatives have a lot to lose, and they are positioned to lose it. They keep coming down on the wrong side of big issues, particularly energy policy and global warming. They’ve placed the wrong bets. You can be sure they won’t give up without a fight, even if they are fighting for what is a dangerously wrong cause. They are a little like a wild animal swept away by a torrent. It behooves us to help them ashore. They’ll eventually admit to the new reality, but we can’t expect them to be grateful for the rescue, or abandon their taste for meat.

  24. JoeSnow says:

    You guessed wrong Stephen.

  25. DanB says:


    I’ve tried for years to persuade academically trained “liberals” that principles trump reason, that emotions trump reason, and that we liberals have beliefs that trump reason.

    Glaringly obvious are the never to be changed dynamics of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I decided to apply what I’d learned about communication and persuasion from social scientists like Stephen Schneider and the guys who wrote ‘Made to Stick’ at Christmas. My partner’s family exchanged books by Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter. So I started telling stories (not data) about working with low-income and minority people in our neighborhood on environmental issues like, healthy food and energy efficiency. I described single mothers on food stamps who persuaded Chase Bank to pay for doubling the value of those EBT cards at Farmer’s Markets.

    Each sentence was chosen to evoke images – my minority, single mother neighbors. And the tactics they used: Their kids making a cloth Turkey-Doll to present to their local Chase Bank branch manager. They succeeded on several counts I won’t cover in this post.

    My in-laws melted. They loved it. They were persuaded.

    I was gob-smacked. It was too easy. It defied the “logic” of family arguments over deep divides rubbed raw at T’day and X-mas.

    You are absolutely correct. People who doubt that images, and communication that incorporates imagery, are off base should try it. It works.

    Why doubt what works until you’ve tried it? Makes no sense to me. And I was born on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

    BTW. It burned at least 7 times. When it burned a major bridge, with TV images, then it became “real”.

    Communication / persuasion 101: Use images.

    Communication / persuasion 102: Use words that convey images.

    Communication / persuasion 103: Utilize unexpected images and stories.

    Communication / persuasion 104: Keep it simple. People read headlines more times than they read half the story.

    Communication / persuasion 105: Stories that elicit emotion move people. They always have, always will. And remember this, stories elicit images. Data don’t. Except to the already persuaded. Check Iraq War debacle.

  26. M Tucker says:

    Conservatives cannot be trusted. They harbor agendas that harm Americans and they will almost never run openly on them. The anti-female health platform of the past election cycle was an exception and they got slammed. The Republicans in Michigan are a perfect example of the diabolical and demonic nature of the conservatives. They never openly attacked unions and when the gullible voters elected a Republican majority the trap was set. You vote for Republicans at your peril.

  27. Jim Baird says:

    For the party of “Family Values”

    Climate denial is child abuse.

  28. Chris Dudley says:

    Conservatives tend to be overly concerned with cleanliness, according to a few behavior studies. This is a fascinating way to look at that theory through a different lens. How to put it into action and get moving to mitigate Global Climate Change before it’s too late, that’s a whole ‘nother matter. Maybe we all need to walk around with these pictures on our t-thirts or something.

  29. Jason says:

    This squares with Jonathan Haidt’s observation that conservatives have a highly-developed sense of disgust. He’s mentioned it in a TED talk.

    At last, a rhetorical strategy to bring deniers into the fold: Show them pictures of pollution-scarred lungs.

  30. Moses Lonn says:

    Nah. They’ll just arrange their lives to live in Montana or Sedona where they don’t have to breathe polluted air, drink polluted water or deal with any of it. They tend to be older folks. One operating assumption is ‘IBG&YBG’, I’ll be gone and you’ll be gone before anything need be done.

  31. Dale Howey says:

    Purity arguments will move conservatives because it is one of their main ethical arguments for anything. They tip more towards Authority, loyalty, purity agruments for war, police and the environment. Speak their language and they will listen. Read “The Righteouse Mind, why good people are devided by Politics and Religion” by Johnathan Haidt. Ethics Professor of Business and self described liberal. He a good teach and will enable you to talk to your crazy relatives or neighbors without blowing your cool. We need them to see clearly by any means necessary. That means we might have to listen to their gobblyty gook for awhile and then speak, but you will know where they are coming from.

  32. Connie says:

    I’ve never understood the belief of climate deniers that people who warn about climate change have anything to gain by such warnings, especially if climate change is just a gigantic hoax. What motive are scientists and others supposed to have for lying about it?