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Liberals May be More Morally Invested on Climate, but Conservatives Are More Likely to be Energy Efficient at Home

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Over at Mother Jones, Chris has a piece about the moral motivations of liberals and conservatives. He points to a new political psychology study led by Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois-Chicago considering the differing moral investments of individuals at both ends of the political spectrum. Skitka and her team report that conservatives feel greater moral conviction on immigration, the federal budget, states’ rights, gun control, abortion, physician-assisted suicide and the deficit. Liberals, on the other hand, are more morally invested when it comes to gender equality, income inequality, healthcare reform, education, climate change and the environment.

Let’s take a moment to consider those last two: Climate change and the environment.

Here’s a look at data from the most recent UT Energy Poll based on a representative national sample of 2,113 Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Libertarians. The results below indicate percentages of each group who responded that they are likely to do the energy efficient behavior listed within the next five years:

Not surprising so far. In every example, Democrats are significantly more likely to say that they will change their behavior to be more efficient than Republicans. Now let’s take a look at who has already done each of these:

Aside from the purchase of energy efficient light bulbs, Republicans are just as likely or, at times, significantly more likely to be taking these energy efficient measures in their own lives. Sure, the rationale for making such decisions is likely to be different, but there’s more to the story when we consider intent as well as action. What’s clear is that consumer choices that impact climate and the environment are motivated by more than moral convictions.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. SAULT18 11:53 am 02/21/2014

    The biggest leg up Republicans have over Democrats is having already installed attic fans. Buying energy efficient appliances and improving home insulation also tilt to the GOP, but the difference is marginal. The graphs say that the results are based on “weighted data”, but I would be curious to know if UT controlled for home ownership rates. Remember, Republicans are slightly older, generally suburban / rural and a bit wealthier on the whole than the rest of the country, so maybe they are more likely to own their home and be able to do these efficiency improvements. Democrats skew younger, are concentrated in urban areas and might have lower levels of home ownership. As anybody who pays rent can tell you, it is nearly impossible to get your landlord to improve the energy efficiency of your building / apartment / etc. or try to do it yourself.

    Link to this
  2. 2. greenhome123 2:17 pm 02/21/2014

    I would like to see similar study showing who purchases more organic food, who has home garden, and who purchases more meat/dairy/eggs/fish.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Sheril Kirshenbaum 2:25 pm 02/21/2014

    @SAULT18
    There are a lot of possibilities that account for the differences. Home ownership, income, age, and more may all affect response. We have that demographic data.

    @greenhome123
    Eating local organic food does not always mean its production consumes less energy.

    Link to this
  4. 4. singing flea 2:36 pm 02/21/2014

    Republicans don’t act on moral grounds to improve the lives of others, that is against their philosophy which is every man for himself. They act when they think they can save money for themselves. A real conservative would be thinking about conserving the worlds resources for their children’s future as well as their personal comfort. A real conservative would not run around in a 5,000 pound truck just to show their neighbors that they can.
    One of the things that separates man from the apes is intelligent foresight. They build cars because they want to go somewhere in the future. They build houses so they don’t have to hibernate in the winter, or sit out the day in the rain. The higher the intelligence the more they understand the consequences of their actions. They even begin to plan things like stopping an incoming asteroid for example.
    The lesser intelligent humans, like republicans, will (like the apes)just eat what they want while trashing the environment and just move on to cleaner grounds when get tired of stepping in their own dung.

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  5. 5. GreenMind 2:48 pm 02/21/2014

    The article says, “In every example, Democrats are significantly more likely to say that they will change their behavior to be more efficient than Republicans.” I’m sure the article is using a very narrow statistical definition of “significant,” but they don’t provide any error bars. To me the difference between 30% and 33% does not look “important,” even if it may be statistically significant.

    In contrast, if you go to the UT link, you see larger differences between Republicans and Democrats with regard to their attitudes toward energy. However, it provides no data on consumer purchases, only attitudes.

    I agree with the conclusion, that “consumer choices that impact climate and the environment are motivated by more than moral convictions.” But the alternative, that consumer choices that impact the environment might be motivated ONLY by moral choices, is so ludicrous that the actual conclusion is useless.

    The article is right about intent. More than must moral choices are involved in all of these consumer decisions. For attic fans, solar panels and home insulation, those save money, lots of money. Years ago I read a news article saying that it is the conservative wealthy who buy the most solar panels, because they had the money to pay for the installation and they save a lot of money on it, in the long run.

    Things may have changed now, because you don’t have to pay anything up front to get a solar power installation. Companies now will finance the whole thing for a lower monthly fee than most people pay their utility companies. You don’t even have to own a property or have a house anymore because they will install the solar panels somewhere else, like over a parking lot or on a warehouse.

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  6. 6. bbrox1 3:20 pm 02/21/2014

    @Sheril Kirshenbaum

    No, your margin of error was 3.1 for THE ENTIRE SAMPLE of 2113 respondents. Your MoE for the partisan subsamples is quite a bit higher, though we can’t know for sure since you don’t publish information (either here or at the UT Energy Poll website) on the sizes of the subsamples. Just eyeballing it I would guess you MIGHT have statistically significant differences between D&R on ‘install attic vents/fan’ and you almost certainly DO NOT on any of the other questions.

    Please contact one of any number of specialists at UT on public opinion for a remedial lesson in MoE calculation (e.g. Jessee, Lin, Luskin, Shaw, or Wlezien in the Dept. of Govt).

    Link to this
  7. 7. Sheril Kirshenbaum 3:40 pm 02/21/2014

    @Brian,
    You are correct that 3.1 is for the entire data set. I have taken my earlier comment down to avoid further confusion. Yes MOE would be higher for the data by party and thanks for the suggestion for a remedial lesson, but I am already aware of that, I just responded here too quickly.

    I can check on that and you are correct that information is not available on our site without a subscription. That said, for anyone interested, the topline results are free to download.

    Link to this
  8. 8. llirbo 3:52 pm 02/21/2014

    Is a difference in income involved? I wonder.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Sheril Kirshenbaum 4:00 pm 02/21/2014

    We do see income and age differences throughout the data.

    Link to this
  10. 10. cynsharon13@gmail.com 1:15 am 02/22/2014

    Obviously republicans are more likely to install a fan because they are more likely to live in a hot climate, eg the south or the southwest than democrats who typically live in the northeast, the west, of the Midwest. A fan does not make sense in these areas. As the rest of the data is not statistically significant, I’d say this report says just enough to be misleading. As an upper middle class liberal who owns her own home and has installed solar panels, compact lights, climate neutral heat (wood burning stove) I can say that the ability to put your money where your mouth is, resides in your ability to have money. This would be a much more interesting study if you just looked at income, home ownership and the adoption of energy saving devices. The correlation would be stark, but probably not sexy enough for this author.

    Link to this
  11. 11. tuned 10:37 am 02/24/2014

    It’s not about coneys or libbys.
    It’s about hedonism, and both parties overflow with that.
    From Hollywood to Wall Street.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Owl905 1:19 pm 02/24/2014

    Great survey! Just enough data to start a street fight. Libertarians talk the talk, and maybe see solar panels as energy guns. Republicans have the best attics (there’s a joke in there somewhere). And the closest thing to consensus is agreeing with Dubiya that energy efficient bulbs and machines is a doin’ a good job.

    Link to this
  13. 13. phalaris 2:54 am 02/25/2014

    There may be confounders in this survey, but the results are consistent with the view that “liberals” (lefties) are good at striking poses, but have hypocritical tendencies.

    Link to this
  14. 14. riograndedan 1:55 pm 02/25/2014

    Smart meter tech is up to the Utility Company. Wood heat is not neutral. There is a huge carbon foot print from gathering, cutting, splitting, delivering, burning. Even the EPA has now begun cracking down with more regulations. My house has no attic (“Gambrel” roof) and is passive solar with a huge wood stove. My shop has R57 in the roof and R26 in the walls. It doesn’t need a fan or a stove. Liberals I find are generally quite regressive. They can talk but they can’t walk.

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  15. 15. jmssisler 8:33 pm 02/26/2014

    I have noticed, based on anecdotal evidence, that vegetarians and vegans were the least likely to have vegetable gardens. Whereas, people that are omnivores are much more likely to have vegetable gardens. It should be easy to design a study to see if this is indeed a valid association.

    Link to this
  16. 16. vagnry 3:32 pm 02/27/2014

    Thank you, SAULT18!

    As I read the article, I wondered about exactly the same factors, but you saved me from writing about them!

    But while Sheril Kirshenbaum writes ” We have that demographic data.” she does not expound on how the data affects the conclusions?

    Th house owner will always get full benefit of a lower energy bill, while the apartment resident, even if (s)he owns it, is unlikely to get the full benefit of the investment, and if the apartment is let/hired, neither the owner of the building, nor the letters, benefit much from it.

    But when it comes to energy efficient lighting, democrats were in front, probably because the full benefit goes to the resident!

    Link to this
  17. 17. Jfreed27 8:43 am 02/28/2014

    In comparing Liberals and Conservatives vis a vis the environment, shall we also look at their voting records? Voting for ‘cap and trade’ for example would be ‘walking the talk’.

    And who do you think, R or D, would block a revenue neutral price on carbon, even though collected fees could be used to lower other taxes? Stay tuned.

    Link to this
  18. 18. hasty1 3:25 pm 03/1/2014

    The republican mentality is basically cheap-skate.
    Their sharing dynamic is withered or nonexistent.
    Pulling up the ladder is reflexive.
    It is intuitive that they would be as efficient -at home-
    as possible while simply ‘tight-ass’d’ with anything
    abroad or anybody ‘other’.

    Link to this

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