If the 2016 elections taught us anything, it's that America is more morally diverse than we had initially imagined (and that's putting it lightly). Despite 64 percent of Americans claiming to be worried about climate change, we elected a President who called climate change a "hoax," promised to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, and vowed to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. As much as we have in common, there appears to be an equal schism in the way we prioritize our moral motivators on climate change.

For decades, faith leaders have championed morally driven climate communications that emphasize compassion and fairness. While this strategy has effectively persuaded a significant number of politically liberal people of faith, it has remained slightly less efficient within conservative communities. Most faith-based calls to climate action remain monolithic in their appeal(s) to social welfare, neglecting profound conservative morals of self-sufficiently and providing for one’s family.

Carolyn Gregoire, a Senior Writer at The Huffington Post, suggests that "most moral arguments around climate change may inadvertently appeal more to liberals by focusing on its effects on animals, vulnerable populations, and future generations." Messages that center solely on communal welfare are impactful to some degree, but if faith leaders hope to break through to all Americans, they'll need to expand their call to represent the concerns of a developing religious base that draws on a variety of morals. For example, if a person of faith is deeply concerned about their moral right to liberty, explaining how renewable energy reduces America’s reliance on foreign oil is a more effective approach than talking about climate refugees.

In 2012, Matthew Feinberg mistakenly claimed, "that liberals, but not conservatives, view the environment in moral terms and that this tendency partially explains the relation between political ideology and environmental attitudes." There are many things that Feinberg gets right, but this is not one of them. Conservatives do not lack a moral framework on the issue of climate change; they merely differ in what morals they use to prioritize their position on the issue and its solutions.

American moral priorities are varied, but they are not altogether untrackable. Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory explains six moral axes that drive most Americans.

  1. Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm.
  2. Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating.
  3. Liberty: the loathing of tyranny; opposite of oppression.
  4. Loyalty or in-group: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal.
  5. Authority or respect: obeying tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion.
  6. Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation.

Less than one month before the Presidential election, Cornell researchers applied Haidt's Moral Foundation Theory to American climate opinions and found that "compassion and fairness were strong, positive predictors of willingness to act on climate change" among liberal communities. Conservative Americans, however, responded more positively to moral messages that focused on "purity, authority, and in-group loyalty." Similar findings were reported in ecoAmerica's, Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Communication released last year. The joint report by ecoAmerica and Columbia University found that “climate communicators can channel the influence of groups by helping people view their actions and responses to climate change as part of a larger group effort, whether that group is a neighborhood, a company, or a faith-based organization.”

Cornell researchers suggest that America's "response to climate change can have existential, moral, social, and pragmatic components. This complexity means that the relationship between attitudes, intentions, and behavior is not straightforward. Even when we believe climate change is real and caused by humans, heuristics, and cognitive biases can hinder our ability to act." Environmental psychologist Dr. Renee Lertzman agrees that "strong moral values can easily conflict with other values a person might hold, limiting that person’s willingness to make personal choices that benefit the environment" and "those conflicts need to be considered." In the 2016 election, many Americans were convinced that mandates like the Clean Power Plan minimized their ability to care for their family, citing economic insecurities. Explaining the economic resilience of renewable energy in this instance will be far more effective than evoking moral responsibilities to social welfare.

Faith leaders hold a unique position to help navigate these diverse moral courses toward positive climate voting patterns. This should not, however, apply solely to communities living in Midwestern flyover states as previously assumed. Considering historically liberal strongholds such as California, New York, and Illinois managed a thirty to forty percent voter base for Donald Trump, it’s safe to assume that congregations in all regions of America likely maintain diverse moral approaches to climate change, as well as a thriving conservative base. But the moral diversity surrounding climate change is more nuanced than discussions of partisan alignment.

Case in point: Washington State, where “most of the environmental community and a broad coalition of progressives did not support the long-coveted ‘holy grail’ of climate policy, a carbon tax (state ballot – I-732).” KC Golden, Senior Policy Advisor of Climate Solutions, suggests that the climate movement must address these moral divides to “find common ground with more than its overwhelmingly white, green, liberal elite.” There is no such thing as a homogenous voter precinct or single moral call on climate — a diversity that our communications strategies would benefit from recognizing.


Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.